Crossing into the Unknown – Georgia to Armenia

6 Jul

After waking with hangovers in the Georgian village of Idumala, Adriana and I ate a quick breakfast of Khachapuri (traditional Georgian cheese bread) with the men of the village, downed a couple of shots of cognac, and then wandered down to the main road shortly after midday, to begin our 85-mile hitchhiking mission to Gyumri, across the border in Armenia. The lush, bright green valleys stretched out below us on all sides; watched over by the equally green mountains, reaching high into the clouds for as far as the eye could see; our route guided by the calm and serene Mtkvari River on our right side; as local peasants passed us on horse-drawn carts.

This early April morning in Idumala, Georgia, was probably the most beautiful of the journey

This early April morning in Idumala, Georgia, was probably the most beautiful of the journey

We managed to hitch a ride with a couple of manual labourers in a small van to within about 30 miles of the Armenian border, where we were dropped off at the side of the road and waved goodbye. We carried on, on foot.

Adriana leads the way. Onward towards Armenia.

Adriana leads the way. Onward towards Armenia

The sky had become slightly less bright throughout the previous hour of driving, and the condition of the roads that we had been bumping along had gradually become more and more – excuse my French – fucked up. Potholes the size of elephant feet cut deep into the concrete on both sides of the road, making it easier for drivers to navigate their way straight down the middle. Just before being dropped off by our two well-meaning chauffeurs, we had listened to them cursing the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, with Georgian words that you didn’t need to have any knowledge of to be able to understand the sentiment. And so we walked, past the group of local boys, sat in their car staring at Adriana’s teal coloured hair, calling out comments that I would like to believe were respectful and complimentary, but that sadly I suspect were of a more indecent tone; until we came to a petrol station that seemed as good a spot as any to begin our search for the ride that would take us to our target destination in Armenia. It didn’t take long in coming, as within a couple of minutes of standing in the kerb, holding out our handmade sign, a small white car with blacked out windows and Armenian plates pulled over, and two guys in their early twenties, both with shortly cropped dark hair and dressed all in black, got out, opened the boot, disposed of a couple of old tires that were taking up space by tossing them to the side of the road, before loading our gear into the back, shaking our hands, pointing for us to climb in the back door, and then driving off in the direction of the border.

Our driver, looking at us in his mirror, asked in heavily accented English if we were American.

“No, not American. Adriana’s Romanian, I’m English,” I told him.

Our driver just nodded, before going back to the muted conversation he was having with his friend in the passenger seat in Armenian.

A few minutes later, as we climbed high into the hills along the road that looked like it had been bombed by NATO troops, the clement weather of earlier in the day was replaced by a snow blizzard, not that we felt the cold, mind due, as the car’s heating was turned up to a level that had the pair of us feeling nauseous. No longer was our path lined by green countryside. Instead, uncultivated brown fields were quickly becoming blanketed in white. Less than an hour previous, I had been catching a sun tan. The condition of the roads meant that, although being the only car on the road, we were limited to a maximum speed of about 15 miles an hour, as our driver completed the obstacle course ahead of him. Twenty minutes later, as our altitude decreased, the snow was replaced by a battering storm. The potholes now became lakes. The day that had started so happily and optimistically was now miserable. We hadn’t arranged a place to stay in Gyumri – although we did have the phone number of a Portuguese resident, Luis, whom we had contacted through our preferred hospitality exchange website and who had told us that he may have an available place for us to crash – and we weren’t looking forward to arriving in the city, close to the hour of darkness, and having to wander around, carrying all of our bags, in this kind of rain that soaked and chilled you to your bones.

The border at Bavra is not a high-tech one. The road leading to it has been reduced to single-lane as a result of the already mentioned state of the concrete, and the crossing itself consists of a large gate that stands above a huge ditch, that you must somehow manage to drive through without killing your car. Also, the guards on the Armenian side are, without competition, the most under-trained and uneducated people that I have ever encountered working in such a position. Leaving Georgia was easy enough; the guards stamped our passports, took our photo and waved us on through. Well, one of them also leaned into the car and asked Adriana, with a mischievous look in his eye, if she spoke Russian, to which she replied bluntly, “No.” But this is not unusual, as the same thing had taken place the day before as we’d crossed from Turkey into Georgia, and I am also reliably informed by the girl in question that it had happened to her on every previous occasion that she had crossed a border in what used to be the Soviet Union. Apparently it is normal custom for these border guards, who are employed by their governments, to talk dirty to girls that they find attractive and that speak the same common language as them. On this occasion Adriana just turned to me and, with a sigh, commented, “The nerve of these guys.”

So, we were out of Georgia and driving on to the control desk of the Armenian authorities, when our driver stopped the car and asked a man in uniform, in Armenian, if he had to drive to a different desk on account of him having Americans in the car. On recognising the word ‘American’, we were quick to interrupt, saying that we were both from the European Union, but neither our driver, his friend, or the uniformed man that he was speaking to appeared to understand or care what we were saying and so, rather strangely, we were completely ignored, as our car was pointed towards the passport control desk. We handed our passports to our driver, who then handed them to the policeman manning the desk. I looked at the policeman and was immediately struck by how similar he looked to our driver and his mate. Before this day I had never met an Armenian, not knowingly anyway, and so didn’t really know whether they shared any common physical characteristics, but looking around at this border crossing I noticed more than anything the eyes. They were big. Big and so dark as to be described as black. The Armenians dotted around this border crossing – the ones employed here, and also the ones bringing their cars through – all had the same very tightly cropped dark hair, thick eyebrows and olive skin.

The guard looked confusedly at our passports.

“Kris,” he then said, looking at me through the open window of the car. “You are German?”

Why was he holding my British passport, looking at it quite clearly in front of him, and yet asking me if I was German? It made no sense.

“No. I am…..” I didn’t have time to utter the word ‘British’ before our driver again stated that we were Americans.

“What?! No! Not American. British! And Romanian. Where are you getting this ‘American’ from?”

Again I was ignored, as the policeman began a conversation with his colleague that had now joined him. I clearly picked out the word ‘Iran’.

“No. Not from Iran. I am British,” I told them again.

I wondered if these border guards were having trouble reading the Latin alphabet that should have been telling them that I was British. Armenia has her own alphabet, completely different to the one used by most western countries.

The Armenian alphabet

The Armenian alphabet

“You don’t have visa,” I was then told. “You need visa to come to Armenia.”

“No we don’t need a visa.” It was Adriana, piping up. “We are both from the EU and we do not need visas.”

I will be honest; I wasn’t sure myself whether or not I needed one. I hadn’t done my research. But Adriana was the brains of our operation and was very well informed, so I trusted her knowledge and allowed her to do the arguing. The policeman then spoke with our driver and again the word ‘American’ was used. In the back of the car, the two of us didn’t know whether to laugh or swear. The policeman was holding both of our passports, studying them – a British one and a Romanian one – and yet convinced that we were American, even though both of our documents were clearly different from each other.

“France?” he then asked me.

“Oh my God! No! Velikobritania,” I told him. (Russian for Great Britain)

“Ah, Velikobritania,” repeated our driver, but in a tone that made us both doubt that he knew where or what Great Britain was. The man in uniform looked at his colleague and then at us, with an expression on his face that suggested he suspected me of making up an imaginary country. He handed the man next to him my passport, saying, “Velikobritania”, but stressing the last syllable in order to make the word a question, as in, “Have you heard of this place?”

The man taking the passport shrugged his shoulders. Was I on a different planet?

The policeman then asked Adriana where she was from, to which she replied, “Romania.”

He then peered closely at her through the window, before asking in Russian if she spoke Russian. She sighed. He stared at her for a few more seconds, before stamping her passport and handing it back to our driver, along with their two Armenian documents. He didn’t, however, stamp or hand back mine. Instead, he handed it to another colleague, a bear of a man with an alcoholic’s tan, in a huge Russian fur hat, who marched off with it and through a door marked, ‘Visa.’ We all sat and waited, until eventually he returned to the booth and, handing my passport to his colleague, said the word, ‘Schengen.’

Britain is not a member of the Schengen Zone, but we figured it pointless to bring up this little detail. Still my passport was not stamped or handed back. Instead, our driver was told to pull his car over to the side and to let other people pass, while my document was further scrutinised. I got out of the car to smoke a cigarette, along with the two Armenians, and as I handed one of them a light I said, “It’s fucking freezing, eh?” in an attempt to start some sort of conversation and to try and bond with these guys that had until now remained quite distant. The response I got wasn’t encouraging. In fact, it is an overstatement to call it a response. I was completely ignored. One of the policemen then came to smoke with us, and the two silent ones suddenly became embroiled in a light-hearted chat with him, laughing and smiling. I had told myself that they were just the strong but silent type, and that’s why they hadn’t wanted to engage me in conversation, but the truth was clearly that they just didn’t want to engage me in conversation. As we finished our smokes, the man in the fur hat returned, handed me my passport without any eye contact, and we got back into the car and were once again on our way.

“Let’s make some conversation,” Adriana said to me. “They must want to talk; otherwise they wouldn’t have stopped to pick us up. It’s rude to just sit here silently in the back like this.”

I knew something that she didn’t; that these boys were not in the mood for gassing, at least not with us.

“They don’t speak much,” I told her. “I tried talking to them just now when we were having a fag but they literally just blanked me.”

“Is it as cold as this in Gyumri?” she then asked the driver with a friendly smile, making reference to the falling sleet outside.

“No. Gyumri is not cold,” came the robot-like reply.

“Oh, that’s good. So what is Gyumri like? What should we see there?”

Nothing. Either they ignored her or they didn’t hear her question. And to not hear her question they would have to have ignored her, as she was sitting just a few centimetres behind them. She looked at me.

“I told you,” I mouthed. And so she gave up.

The drive from the border to Gyumri consisted of just one road, and for almost the entire journey we didn’t see another car; until we entered the city’s outskirts, which resembled a scene from a Spaghetti Western. There were no pavements, just dirt paths that were indistinguishable from the road. Everything was a sandy brown colour. Shops opened up straight onto the street; a street that rather than bustling with people looking to part with their hard-earned wages was instead home to an aggressive turf war between packs of feral dogs; feral dogs that even took exception to any motorised vehicle that happened into their territory – barking, snarling at and chasing out both the bus in front of us and then our car. Adriana and I looked at each other and smiled. It was a smile that said, ‘Finally, after a month in the relative luxury of Turkey, we might just have made it out of our comfort zones and to something completely different.’ This is what we wanted. At least, I thought this was what I wanted.

“Hotel?” our driver asked us.

“No hotel. We have a friend waiting for us in the city.”

“Address?”

“Just drop us in the centre, please.”

“What?”

“We don’t have an address. We have to call our friend when we arrive. So can you just drop us in the centre please?”

“What? Address?”

“Centre.”

“Centre?”

“Yes, please. The centre. The centre of the city. We will be fine from there.”

Our driver looked at us with an expression that said he understood not a word of what we had just tried telling him. And then he said, “City centre?”

“Yes! Please.”

“Okay.”

We drove for another five minutes, off of the road that had taken us from the border and down a few narrow side streets, until we found ourselves at the side of one of those huge Soviet squares, the kind that act as an oversized roundabout; bordered on all sides by large buildings, the kind whose aim it is to simultaneously impress, look nice(ish), and yet instil a kind of fear into the local population (and any wandering foreigner), by over imposing itself. At least, this is how I see it. It is just pointlessly too big, especially in a city such as Gyumri, whose other streets are fairly narrow and have very little going on in them, other than an old man attempting to push-start his 1970s Lada. This scene seemed to be taking place on every single street.

“This is city centre,” said our driver, as he pulled the car over to the edge of Central Square, and our exit from the vehicle was overseen by Vardan Mamikonian, the legendary Armenian commander, who, from atop his horse, held a large cross in one hand and a sword in the other. He was, of course, in the form of a bronze statue, since he died over a century and a half ago. Welcome to Gyumri. Our driver and his friend both got out of their seats, handed us our backpacks from the boot, shook our hands, said nothing, and then drove off into the storm. It was shortly before 6pm, although we didn’t know this, as we hadn’t done our research and therefore still had our watches – or rather, phones; who wears a watch these days? –  set to Turkish time, the country we had left the day before. Both Armenia and Georgia, where we had spent the previous night, were an hour ahead of Turkey, so for the past 24 hours we had been working to an incorrect clock. Not that it made a blind bit of difference to anything.

The rain was torrential. Rather than in drops, it was coming down as a constant sheet. We were soaked through to the skin as we ran the few metres across the square to a building at the side that had an outstretched roof under which we could shelter and take stock of our situation.

Our situation wasn’t good. We had nowhere to go, no one to meet, and to make matters worse, we couldn’t get hold of Luis from either of our phones, as we ran into the automated message telling us that the number we were trying to call was unavailable.

I looked across the square to Gyumri City Hall, and for a second or two a part of me wished we hadn’t left Turkey the day before. But we had, and this was all just part of a new adventure in a new country. We would be alright.

“Don’t worry; just keep calm and Boyabat,” I told myself.

My view of Gyumri City Hall, on the other side of Central Square, as I waited in the wet for Adriana to return.

My view of Gyumri City Hall, on the other side of Central Square

Idumala to Gyumri mapTo be continued……….

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