This was it! Leaving Tbilisi, we were finally in a mini-van on the way to Armenia – all Scott could have wished for his 40th birthday celebrations. The windscreen had a river of cracked tributaries, and the driver allowed his seatbelt to rest undone somewhere near his belly, as though this token gesture to safety was the same as safety. He talked on his phone with his right hand and smoked a cigarette with the other. He still somehow managed to steer us wildly around corners onto oncoming traffic and hold a conversation with the woman next to him. Would Scott reach 41?
It is safe to say that we were the only non-Armenians out of the six passengers, who consisted of two heavily made-up middle-aged women with large plastic bags, and two heavily made-up younger women with small fake designer handbags and carefully tousled hair. All four women had the most extraordinary faces; strong romanesque noses, large almond eyes and high cheekbones. I whispered knowingly to Scott that the most beautiful of them had had ‘work’. I was proven wrong by the end of the week as she looked like all Armenian women – vividly real and imaginary at the same time. I tried to take a few surreptitious pictures of her but she was always a little out of shot or too far away. She got out of the car to be sick at one point at the side of the road, and it felt a bit mean to snap her then.
The trip to the Armenian border took us through empty countryside pock-marked with tatty apartment blocks and uneven roads. I looked out of the window, sucking sweets and coughing. I had developed one of those coughs that attacks you in spasms every hour or so and scares the life out of the people around you. Semi-dozing against the window of the middle seat of the mini-van, I thought I was imagining it at first. There were a number of roadside open-air markets that became more numerous the closer we got to the border. They sold either shiny orange persimmons or detergent. That was it. The fruit I thought fair enough, but bottles and bottles of Daz and fabric softener, what on earth was that about? And the mini-van stopped twice for the passengers to get out and stock up on fruit and detergent. Should we? What if there is no soap in Armenia? Did they know something we didn’t?
We sped up to the border and then we all had to get out and walk across again. This time it was a little more makeshift and a little more shifty. I tried to take a picture of the beautiful Armenian woman by pretending to take a photo of Scott. I ended up with another photo of Scott at a border. As soon as we were on the road again the landscape transformed into the most incredible mountain scenery. ‘It’s like a big Wales’ I whispered, with wonder in my voice. If Armenia had a twin country it was Snowdonia, with sun. The arrival in our destination was as exciting for us as it was boring for the others, as it coincided with the mini-van’s free wifi firing up – we may as well have been on the M25. Then stomach lurching hour after hour passed as we swung up this hairpin bend and down the next, climbing a little higher each time. Without wishing to labour a simile, it was like big Postman Pat in big Wales.
These breathtaking mountains were so surprising, and more so as, over the next few days, we came to realise that we weren’t just in the mountainous part of the country – this was the country. No wonder there is no public transport. Cold-shouldered by Turkey to the west and Georgia to the north, frostily accepted by Azerbaijan to the east and distant strange Iran to the south, this little mountainous country is like some ancient kingdom in a land where there are kingdoms. I imagine the youngest of three sons leaving to go and seek his fortune, with a red spotted bundle on a stick.
Our plan was to head south in the direction of the ancient Tatev monastery, reached by taking the longest-cable-car-in-the world. We liked the look of the enormous Lake Sevan in the east of the country, so wanted to try to travel off the beaten track, rather than on the usual day trip from Yerevan. Fired up with the serendipitous Kars to Tbilisi trip, we were hopeful about going with the flow. We got out of the mini-van in Dilijan, just before it careered off towards the capital.
Dilijan is, according to the guidebook, like the alps. Well, there were mountains, I grant you. We went into a heavy wooden and stone restaurant where families were out for a Sunday meal. It appeared that eating in virtual darkness was customary, so we opted to sit out on a balcony to enjoy the autumn sunshine, a beautiful rainbow and to see our food, wary as we now were from recent culinary experiences. We had some Armenian dram we had changed with a man at the border – enough for a bowl of sorrel soup. It was a vegetable broth with dark stringed leaves and tasted of gritty earth, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I later realised that Armenians like light as much as the next person, and we had arrived during a power cut.
We stayed in the worst hotel yet. It was freezing, had yellowed walls like an overused squat and a matching smell. I was transported back to my student days in south London in the eighties. My skin crawled and I was glad I had my silk sleeping bag liner. It was enough to make me sit up in bed the next morning, without tea (there wasn’t any such thing), and decide to get onto Booking.com to find a decent hotel. I booked us three nights in Harznador Eco Resort, several hours south and over two mountain passes near the monastery. There were pictures of converted barrels and log cabins perched on the side of a mountain. Apparently, it had a sauna, and the idea of a ‘resort’ was very appealing. I am not sure I have ever been to an actual resort so I may be being naive, but in my mind you get looked after by softly spoken staff, there are well-functioning facilities and a range of fun activities. Like my French aunt describes Club Med. It was going to be a lovely rest after all the mini-vans and winding roads. We just had to get ourselves there somehow.
The journey south took the whole of the following day, but we made it. We waited by a large pond in a lovely cafe which was a young persons social enterprise project called Cafe # 2. Over a healthy and well-presented breakfast we sat reading and writing for an hour whilst we waited for a Matrushka – a grand name for a minibus. It was a moment of pause with rippled water and birds resting around the picture windows.
We squashed into the mini-bus with our packs on our knees and lurched out of Dilijan on our way to Sevan – the first stop on the route. Scott had drawn a route plan with neat Armenian script in childish letters. His children’s illustration skills come in handy. The driver cheerfully dropped us on a wide road in the middle of nowhere. Maybe his skills need practice. A chill wind whipped us to frozen in seconds – and I battled on the side of the road with my pack trying to get a coat out and not freeze solid. We cursed the driver and stood confused. There was nothing to be seen other than the greyish turquoise of the glittering expanse of Lake Sevan, and a monastery in the distance, but we just needed to get inside. After twenty minutes huddling at the side of the road, a battered old sedan car pulled up next to us and I remembered my hitch-hiking days from decades ago. ‘You’ve still go it baby’ I muttered as we bundled into the back of the car.
In Sevan we decided to find a cafe and sit with the map and make a plan for the second leg of the journey. , which involved high mountain passes. We tramped up and down the main street and could not find a cafe or even a toilet. The town was decaying, messy, yet proudly turning its shabby back on its Soviet invasion. There were plenty of people buying plenty of groceries, but not a place to sit or to pee.
“Do you need help?” came a little voice and there was a cracked smartphone in front of me with Google Translate. A dark-eyed teenaged girl was smiling shyly up to us. A small crowd was forming around her as she typed her next question;
“My grandfather help you he has a taxi”
All waited expectantly. The grandfather appeared with keys to cab.
“Where are you going?” asked the phone next. It was the perfect moment for Scott’s simply drawn Armenian travel route… The crowd poured over it…
Twenty minutes later and after a well-negotiated trip to the staff toilet at the back of a supermarket, we were heaving our bags into the grandfather’s car. With the use of a calculator, a pen and paper and the helpful teenager, we had agreed a price to take us over the Vardenyats Pass down into Yeghednadzor, and into the next region of Armenia – clearly, to the friendly Sevanese, an exotic land far away. By the time we left we were relatively famous and waved from the windows as we swept away with music blaring.
Armenian architecture is a mix of bleak soviet blocks of marble, ochre coloured tiles, and quaint wooden constructions with steep roofs and delicate wooden carvings – an attempt to reinvent the past. Miles and miles of mountains and trees. No houses or people, only shepherds and cows wandering in the roads, as cars scream past them swerving potholes. Even the baby cows are inured to the drivers. Anywhere in Europe, this beautiful landscape would have private villas on the mountainsides, and discreet hotels. Here there were ruins, tumbled stone pillars and ancient Ladas masquerading as taxis.
I had not had any expectations of Armenia, which is rare. Most places one plans to visit, trigger assumptions to be proved or not. But I had none, barely knew where the country was, and after 24 hours I still had no real sense of it. Even Armenia doesn’t seem sure if it is in Europe or Asia. I couldn’t get into its essence – it was hidden from me behind the ranged peaks blinking one behind the other into the snowy distance. So many countries have been invaded, ravaged, and they have to recover piecemeal with a crumbling infrastructure, failing economy and defensive scars. But they pick themselves up. And the people who leave the land their homes were in, to recover, to make a living, to take a step forward after being left destitute by war, these are people the rich westerners call scroungers. The tables will be turned and one day we will all be on the other side of migration and wonder who will take us. I saw a map on Facebook recently – it was of Europe over the last 1000 years, changing through time. Border and boundaries, retreats and invasions; colonisings. The colours grew and shrank as empires grew and fell, in blue and orange and green. No one is safe from change. Even Britain, smug and separate, walled in by water, taking the credit for an accident of geography.
I leaned in the back of the car with bright sun on my face and cold air whistling through a crack in the window. I resigned myself to taking few photos on this road trip. Too lurching, too cold, too much travel.
So far in Armenia, only Scott had been addressed directly. The sexism suited me, as it meant I got to sit alone and muse into the landscape whilst he had to make awkward gestured sign language and refuse manly cigarettes. We passed people living in shipping containers, huge broken sections of pipe, plains and rocky hills, snowy crests – always in the distance. I wondered about the other road south that we did not choose. Did it also have herds of indifferent bullocks roaming in the road? Stately square houses with arched windows? Barn-shaped. Some even had fake roman columns under their red and green tiled roofs. But strange the desolate soviet ruins, dotted about like a nagging memory. Huge factories and blocks just abandoned. Why don’t they re-purpose them? Why don’t they tear them down?
2344 metres up, on the Vardenyats Pass, our taxi driver tried to make friends. We told him we were from England. He hadn’t heard of it. We told him we lived in Germany. He scratched his cheek. Britain? Europe? Manchester United – bingo! So I left Scott to it and lost myself in the landscape again. Rolling, bare, brave, undulating peaks in grey and brown and yellow with shiny snow caps. Wide wide open 360 degrees. Fantastical, plains, flat mountain rivers. Wild horses. This pass would close in two weeks and not open again until late next spring. We began to descend through humps like dragon shoulders, formed by giants.
In Yehegnadzor we waved off our intrepid taxi driver as he headed back to the pass. He had left us on the side of the road near a petrol station. His last ominous gesture had been the throat-cutting one; our fate should we get into any vehicle save a real Marshrutka… We consulted our childish route plan and decided that the road to Goris was the one we wanted out of the two on offer. Parking ourselves conspicuously, we stared stonily ahead as Lada-taxi’s nudged up to us. Marshrutka passed, bulging with passengers. An hour passed. Another bus that didn’t stop. A car pulled up and a calculator was thrust through the open window. It had the number 6000 on it. We consulted our exchange rate app, squinted at the clouds in the deepening afternoon, and our map to see that we still had several hours to go. Throat-slitting be damned, we thought and got in the back of the sedan. It was Scott’s first proper hitch-hiking and my first paid hitch-hiking.
The driver didn’t have a clue what we were saying and didn’t care. We had no idea what he was saying but did care a bit, as he might have been telling us he had plans to slit our throats and make off with our rucksacks.
‘Babushka’ he said, indicating the ancient lady next to him in the passenger seat. She had high cheekbones, a red flower in newspaper and carpet slippers. She ignored my cheery Hello. She hated us. I could feel her venomous intent from under her red headscarf. Babushka proceeded to shout at her hapless money-making relative on and off for the next three hours. I was sure she was telling him to offload us in the middle of nowhere. The pot-hole swerving, on-coming car, cow avoiding manoeuvres did not phase her. I didn’t dare take a photo.
In the late afternoon sun we were speeding through volcanoes and rocks with molten stone faces as we made our way up to the Vorotan pass. Sprinkled iced mountain tops and aggressive Soviet gateways to nowhere. We almost stopped once, for a violently incongruous speed camera which nearly threw us all through the windscreen. Scott and I maintained the height of Britishness however, and didn’t mention that our seatbelts didn’t work and would the driver please wear one. It seems we would rather die than cause a fuss. We clutched hands furtively. Then we actually stopped for gas -and I don’t mean american petrol, it was actually propane gas in a cannister. Whilst waiting we drank a small sweet tea, and met the single English speaker in Armenia, and to her incredulous ‘But why are you in Armenia?’, we were finally able to tell our Eurovision story to a real Armenian. She was overjoyed and I must say, a little bemused. She helped translate for us and we managed to either get a bargain or get ripped off, but by the end of the negotiations, Babushka and her son were taking us all the way to the ‘eco-resort’. As representatives of western Europe, I think we would get nil points.
Back on the road for the last leg, Iranian radio calling from the border, the sun was setting as we passed a lone tourist with a backpack, walking along the empty road towards us. ‘Walking to Yerevan’ laughed our driver. The moon was waxing full and there was mist on the mountains, mossy and velvet and fading into each other. Several hours later, I thanked Babushka, who scowled, and we got out high up on a mountain in the crispiest silence I had ever heard. A dog’s wet nose sniffed my hand.