Armenia, Wet n’ Wild or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Police

If one travels through the Caucus region, and hopes to get back to Turkey, you cannot shut the door on Georgia just yet. The border between Turkey and Armenia remains officially closed. They have among one of the frostiest relationships possible between two countries and their border has been closed longer than the DMZ. Differences of opinion abound on the question of whether there were massacres of Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915. Turks also claim their own massacres by Armenians. The Armenian diaspora is small but punches significantly over its weight, with a particularly noisy lobby in Washington. Tensions also echo from a little known war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the nineties over the Nagorno Karabakh territory, in which Turkey materially supported the Azeris, who sustained significant losses. The territory in question is inside Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians. And I haven’t even mentioned Nakhchivan yet. An old joke asks why Armenia doesn’t put an astronaut into space? Because Georgia will die from envy, Armenia will die from pride and Azerbaijan will own all of the Caucuses.

You don’t have to be a geopolitical theorist to understand the various ethnic entanglements of these countries, but it helps. I didn’t have time to visit Azerbaijan, or any of the enclaves but the Eurovision will be held there in May 2012 and there is talk of boycotts and protests sweeping the oily capital, Baku and people do speak both of the beauty and tragic ruins of the Karabakh area, so I think that this region hasn’t seen the last of me.

But right now, I am sitting in the marshrutka that will hopefully deliver me to Yerevan. I say ‘sitting’ loosely because one doesn’t so much sit on a marshrutka as rather bounce, wiggle and fly around. If you are fortunate enough, you will be surrounded by people and sacks of potatoes and grain to cushion these frequent disruptions caused by potholes and quite possibly the driver hitting the cha-cha early in the morning. If you are less fortunate, you will be boxed in by sacks of fruit and vegetables that will slowly rot and decompose as the sun microwaves the tiny metal cage over the course of the journey causing you to adopt a canine pose, sticking your head out of the window with your tongue flapping in the air.

Essentially, a marshrutka is a dolmus. No matter how epic the distance, you will wait on that damn bus until it is full to bursting and only then will the idea of leaving become apparent. Luckily enough, it was more or less full by the time we arrived so we handed the burly driver around 10 euros, passed an enjoyable two minutes listening to his rendition of Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’, waited for an old South Korean traveller to smoke a cigarette and we were away.

As is common, the driver used this trip as an excuse to visit long lost family and friends, buy bread and clothes, scream at people on the phone and indulge in a hot and heavy make out session with his girlfriend on the front seat. I don’t know how long we were on that bus, in many ways I am still there, head glued to the window, ears penetrated by Armenian Ibiza tunes…We stopped at a roadside shack in the shadow of some great mountains where the driver napped, some passengers feasted on roasted pig, washed themselves with a hose or, like me, aimlessly wandered around watching eagles circle overhead.

To describe Yerevan, I will divert briefly to Macedonia. In 1968, Skopje was destroyed by an earthquake. The regime at the time were Soviet stooges and so the reconstruction project ensured that what was once a colourful, pretty town would be forever stained by the brutalist architecture of the Communist style. Yerevan was devastated by an earthquake in 1678, so really they have no excuse for similar crimes against town planning. We arrived on a public holiday and so the night sky was illuminated by all manner of fireworks that rained down debris on the population like volcanic ash. The closed Turkish border may be a stumbling block for peaceful negotiations but certainly some in the capital are prospering financially by importing Turkish goods through Georgia, while those at the border struggle to sell fruit by the road. There is an ostentatious elite of Yerevan who cruise around in Hummers and Ferraris, wear sharp shouldered suits and crocodile shoes. Hermes and Louis Vuitton boutiques sit alongside sushi and Mexican restaurants.

At dinner, we sat near a table of ten that seemed to be a rather sullen family reunion between Armenians and Americans. I overheard the smartly-dressed, grinning Armenian father remarking that “in Africa, when someone says ‘I love you’, it means ‘I want to eat you’.” The Americans looked desperately uncomfortable.

The next day, I strolled down to Europcar and achieved a lifelong ambition. Picking up my white Lada Niva (the quintessential Soviet mini-jeep), I located the highway, successfully avoiding the swarms of kamikaze drivers magnetically attracted to me and headed out of town to meet Armenia. For the next few days, this vehicle would be my faithful steed. If it was a horse, I would have shot it after one hour. But only for the temperamental, elongated gear stick. It was perfect for the terrain I would pass and soon enough the old girl would have a chance to prove her talents. After a couple of hours out of Yerevan, when we reached the bumpy track skirting around Lake Sevan, with holes like meteor craters that the suspension duly carried me across, I regretted my tirade of abuse I had inflicted on the poor vehicle. Bumpy roads are exactly what the Lada Niva does best.

The sparkly blue water of Sevan beckoned and I pulled over for a swim. Apparently the lake’s name is derived from Lake Van (literally ‘black Van’) just over the border in Turkey. Next week I would be there. Fuelled by my newfound liberation on wheels, I spotted a dome further down the shore and drove towards it.

The dome belonged to the Hyravank monastery.  Forlornly perched overlooking the lake but slightly hidden from view of the main road, this 12th century building was slowly getting consumed by moss but still stood strong.

Taking the road away from the lake, the land began to steeply rise until we were tracing the peaks of the southern mountains, only again to plunge down into the Vyots Dor region and immediately arrive at the Selim Caravanserai. This 12thcentury hall was a rest house for Silk Road travellers, where they could park their wagons, take a nap, do some trading and feed their animals – inside you can see troughs for this purpose. In modern times, you park your Lada facing a spectacular panorama over the valleys and are greeted by a group of people, from all age ranges, huddled around a jeep stereo emitting thunderous techno. Despite the shattered serenity, I was more amused than anything else but nevertheless, those tradesmen from long ago would have enjoyed a good night’s sleep as, once entering the chilly, dark hall, this noise almost disappeared. Beams of light a la Star Trek pierced through cracks in the roof that cast an eerie glow on the pillars and vaults stretching overhead. I was in a very dark hole, in Southern Armenia, with the ghosts of the Silk Road whispering in my ear, and outside two families are enjoying a techno picnic – life is not without its oddities.

A slow mountain descent in the fading light and eventually we rolled into Yeghegnadzor. There are apparently many charming guest houses in this area, some built into the cliffs, some with bee hives outside that provide you with honey with your breakfast. Having done exactly no preparation, we walked up to a huge, crumbling building where an old woman sat on the steps. We raised our eyes up to where a sign for a hotel might have been in the past– and realised this would be our roof tonight. Back in its glory days – this hotel would have been host to the kind of gala Soviet meetings of pomp and lavish banquets that would have satisfied the most Brezhnevian apparatchik. Nowadays, its atmosphere is sepulchral. We wandered through labyrinthine corridors that led into vast, regal lobbies coated in several layers of dust, up dimly lit staircases, finally to arrive at our room. The room seemed like it had not hosted living humans for several years. In the bathroom, a gentle attempt to turn the taps was met with a guttural moan of protest and somewhere deep in the bowels of the building, something rattled and died. We quickly stowed our baggage and left for dinner. It was late and Yeghegnadzor was closed, save for a laundrette and some ladies conversing in a small supermarket. After it was established that we needed nourishment, two laughing men refurbishing a shop next door were summoned and within a minute we were squeezed into the back of their car, cocooned by sacks of coffee and speeding out of town. Half an hour later in some kind of cave at a roadside diner, a plate of lamb khorvats was served as the young waiter kicked away leaping torpedo-sized crickets from the table. It’s an old travelling cliché but the level of hospitality and kindness shown to two lost souls never fails to charm.

Upon our return to Spook Central hotel, incidental music played in my head as we crept through the pitch black hallways. Half expecting to see a kid in a tricycle come down the corridor, I was surprised to hear the sounds of chatter and laughing. The door at the end had light coming from underneath and the sounds of a late night soiree in progress. This didn’t make any sense. Walking quickly to the room, I locked the door tight and fell into a fitful sleep, punctuated by the apocalyptic noise of the Lada Niva alarm sounding off at regular intervals. I still had not figured out the system, so multiple times I was awoken and forced to manically point my keys over the balcony like a sniper to try to silence it.

As colourful as the Yeghegnadzor Bates Motel was, the next night we would stay in the more homely confines of Goris, further south. But first, there was the Devil’s Bridge and Tatev Monastery.

Goris lies nestled in a valley and soon the Niva was manoeuvring through its pretty, tree lined streets that ran over eddying streams. I lazily cruised down one of these streets, so taken was I with the quaintness, that I quite missed the parked police car and the large, blue-uniformed policeman signalling to me sternly. My passenger demanded quite loudly that I stop. I did so, looked in my rear view mirror, put on my dumb tourist face, left my wallet in the car and went over to him, hands imploring, shrugging and otherwise gesticulating my regret at not acknowledging his presence. He gestured to his passenger seat, shut the door and we both sat in his vehicle as another one of his colleagues, out of nowhere, joined me by the window on my right side, blocking any exit. Ah hah, a shakedown! Stamina is the key in these situations. A real effort is needed to pretend not to understand the most basic of Russian words. Apparently, in addition to blissfully ignoring the presence of Goris’ boys in blue, I drove down a one-way street. To back up his claim, he pointed to a sign of which around 1% was visible behind tree branches. I slapped my hand to my forehead, exhibiting the hammiest of acting. He repeated a certain word, more of my innocent smiles. A resigned frown, then the thumb and two forefingers rubbed together indicating the international sign for baksheesh. Ah! You’re talking about money! The cops nodded their heads. Now, he understands. I dramatically fished in my pocket as the air grew thick with anticipation. And then I obligingly produced a 100 dram coin (16p). The cop on the right emitted a sound of disgust, the older cop on the left gave me a sly look as if to say ‘you win this round, now get your broke ass out of my car’.

On the way back to Yerevan, we filled the car with three Polish hitchhikers and once again, I would do the dance with Armenia’s police. On the highway I was pulled over ‘for speeding’ and an elaborate diagram was drawn on a piece of paper for me by the officer. It seemed to say that while Armenians pay x thousand dram for speeding, we only charge tourists y thousand dram, as a way of saying ‘welcome to Armenia’. I looked at the paper, up to his eyes, back to the paper…ah! You mean money??! No money! He pointed to my British driving licence – no money?? No! This had been taking a while and my travelling companion came out of the car to investigate. Upon seeing her, the cop looked at me, put two forefingers together, implying marriage, and look at me quizzically. Da, da.  I replied. At this, he threw his head back in laughter, shook my hand, winked at me and drove away. I wish this happened everywhere.

The next morning, the receptionist at the hostel threw water in my face. Before I could start to scream epithets and beat her with her keyboard, she explained that it was ‘Vardavar’, a national holiday with pagan roots. She warned not to go outside with any phones, documents or important things that could get wet. I didn’t pay much attention to this…until I left. The Armenian youth apparently take this deadly seriously. Legions of kids from all directions run at anyone in eyesight with hoses, cups, anything that can successfully deliver water. We took the back streets to avoid the onslaught. A typical scene would be to find an empty road, ominously spattered with dark blotches of water that quickly dried up in the 40 degree heat. It would seem all clear until out of nowhere a kid with a giant water pistol would get you in the eye, then another from the window. It was a siege. And we were foreigners which purely increased the attacks. It is primarily aimed at women, for the obvious ‘wet t-shirt’ reason, so I was relatively untouched at first, so I enjoyed the innocent fun and laughed as my friend was mercilessly soaked everywhere she walked. And then they got me like Sonny Corleone at the toll booth.

We ran into the National Gallery of Armenia to escape the deluge but the aquatic theme continued as I plunged into several hours of hypnotic Crimean seascapes, like this one; Ivan Aivazovsky – Old Theodosia


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