The border was right there. How could I resist?
I had a week before my flight left from Tbilisi. And the border was right there.
After more than a month stuck with it, the first part riding it, the second part hitchhiking with it, I was relieved to ditch the bicycle.
“Da schwitzaria, njet problema!” The owner of the guesthouse told me with his pure, childlike smile, almost overwhelmed, so happy to be able to help, so happy that we were able to communicate. He called the people by where they were from.
The first ride stopped immediately – a good omen. As if strapping on an old backpack, I felt back into the rhythm of small talk, remembering a surprising amount of the broken Russian I had learnt in Central Asia.
The driver, an Armenian living in Georgia, pointed over the border to Turkey. He asked me if I knew what they had done. He shook his head gravely, retelling some of it. A hundred years later, it seemed to be deeply carved into his bones, a painful wound in a sensitive spot refusing to heal.
The story was cut short, the ancient soviet car breaking down. The transmission went limp, my driver looking at me. He said nothing.
I walked out to the end of the little town, overlooking the landscape, waiting for the next car. The Lesser Caucasus, the area was called, scorching summers and icy winters steeling all life within it. A plateau two thousand meters high, mountain chains hemmed it in far off to either side, making it feel small and expansive at the same time.
Two retired Armenians, hard and leathery with thick hands, took me across the border, where the road immediately got terrible. Driving horrendously, they wanted money at first, but relaxed when I wanted to get out of the car. In the end, they even seemed fond of me, even though unable to show any emotional warmth after a life of work, war and strong drink.
They left me on a mountain road, where a taxi stopped soon after. The aged driver, one hand covered in a worn band aid, tremoring slightly, didn’t want any money.
In the city, the second biggest of the country, there were practically no places to eat, but fountains with drinking water everywhere. The lady in the supermarket, explaining to me what the pastries had inside, was kind, but confused by my smile.
I walked out of town. Trying my luck, I asked a man that was on the right side of the road, stopped in a car. Eyes deeply sunken, he shook his head, his expression making me feel like I had just touched a hedgehog by accident. Retreating, I mused: A mask of rock, the last little bit of life left deep down in agony.
Soon, I got a ride straight to the capital. The middle-aged driver was merry, his girlfriend less so. Eager to talk, he gave me a lot of fried rolls filled with meat. Two hours later – an accident blocking traffic, a long stop to fill up on gas – we arrived. Having descended more than a kilometer, the heat pressed.
Yerevan felt small. Russians fleeing conscription filled the hostel, the streets alive and busy. The next day, taking a bus, I checked out the one of the main sites of the country. A church, Mount Ararat as background. The mountain much nicer than the church.
On the walk back to the highway, a cute dog ate mulberries with me. The trees lined either side of the road, an abundance of fruit, littering the floor, clogging the profile of my shoes. Every tree had a different taste. A lada stopped, two young guys. One of them spoke a little English, telling me he was a cook. They seemed friendly.
At the highway, a guy listening to progressive rock picked me up within minutes, asking me if I believe in Jesus. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity, after all.
Within minutes another man, older, who loved Putin. A slip of mine, and he realized that I speak Turkish; a fact better not volunteered here. He smiled, starting to reply in kind. Baffled, I inquired. He was Azeri. He was going home. Nakhchivan, the tiny Azeri exclave squeezed in between Turkey and Armenia, was close.
On a roll, the next car took no time. The guy, pleasant but nervous, high maybe, took me into the mountains, different mountains. Drier, desert-y. “Bomba!” he said, after hearing of my plan to see the biggest lake of the country.
Glad to be alive after his precarious driving, I had reached my destination for the day, but decided to keep going. At this rate, who knew how far I would make it.
On a small road inside a canyon, leading to another famous church, I was cut short wondering if this is where things would get difficult by the next car, barley having had enough time to put on another layer.
The church reddish, like the surrounding mountains. Sudden, intense rain scattered the few Russians taking pictures. The guy that had taken me up offered to drive me 50 kilometers in any direction I wanted. Test driving a car, it didn’t matter where he went, he just had to drive.
Exchanging pleasant words over pleasant music, the scenery changed: jagged, rippled mountains heralding in a new area. There was one road going south, everything and everybody on this road: The Iranian truck hauling petrol, the farmer going back home on his tractor, the little boy playing on his bicycle.
I got out at a little market. An old man sitting in front with a huge boombox, blaring the last decade’s EDM, drunk. He was the owner, selling me peanuts. Later, arguing loudly with a neighbor, also drunk.
A truck stopped, a friendly, talkative guy. We drove up a pass, after which came another plateau, green, two thousand meters high. Without apparent reason, he stopped in the middle of nowhere, looking out the window, searching for something. Freerolling back down a little, he continued to look, eventually shaking his head. I had no idea what was going on.
He asked me where I wanted to go, then asked me why I wanted to go there. No, it’s not beautiful, I should go and check out another church that was close. So I did.
A guy my aged in a sprinter stopped within minutes, going far, but first, there was work. Stopping at a friend’s place, he beckoned me to follow. Together, we loaded up five heavy sacks of grain into the sprinter. As a reward, stopping at a scenic lookout, overlooking a valley and the church built right at its edge, giving me some candy bars.
Driving down the valley, it became obvious that he knew the road, even so, I was at the edge of my seat, the fact that he was casually browsing Facebook while driving like hell not helping to calm me.
We arrived in his hometown, close to the Iranian border. There were no cheap places in town, so I just started on my way back. I realised I basically had to hitch everything back. I didn’t mind.
The sun setting, an old mama picked me up, and I wished she would cook me supper and tuck me into bed, but it didn’t happen. I ended up in a random motel, eating biscuits from the market.
The next morning, I found a ride within ten minutes, going all the way through the country, exactly where I needed to.
The guy was funny, but his mood fluctuated. His phone rang sporadically, him loudly arguing with the other end, followed by prolonged, sullen silence. We spent seven hours together, him sharing his lunch with me, which we ate overlooking the huge, serene, “Bomba!” lake.
Afterwards, two young guys picked me up immediately, then a guy speaking decent English. An intellectual, the difficult type, impossible to get a straight answer out of, except for this: He’d never leave Armenia, as so many others have (two thirds of all Armenians live in diaspora), he wouldn’t even leave his hometown. His reaction after hearing what I do for a living: “Well… if it brings the money.”
It was going well, so well, and then, immediately, Arthur stopped, adding the cherry on top: Inviting me home, which I walked up to with a humongous smile on my face, not knowing what to expect inside the brutal soviet housing block complex, a rusty playground in the middle, a derelict staircase leading up to a heavy wooden door.
It opened into a neatly furnished flat, a sweet grandma watching TV. Within five minutes, I had a succulent fish dinner in front of me, walnuts and cherries and cake and rum at discretion.
Arthur spoke a toast, and we drank. A soldier in his early 30’s, he spoke freely about the war, telling me that there is fighting up until this day. That Azeri soldiers still invade their territory, that he was the leader of an artillery team. Showing me positions he had recently bombed on his smartphone, using a non-governmental mountaineering app, I began to feel into the psyche of a nation: One that is fearing annihilation.
Under the Ottoman empire, the Armenians had once lived on far more land than today. After its fall, this land they historically inhabited was awarded to them by the treaty of Sevres to form an independent state, alongside trials for the Turks, who were responsible for the genocide of more than a million Armenians during World War I; a genocide so brutal and effective at slaughtering a people that the Nazis later took it as an example to model their’s on.
But, the Turks, under the founder of the modern Turkish state, Atatürk, revered and loved by all its citizens, fought against this treaty, waging a war against anybody that wanted to enforce what would amount to a loss of territory of over 80% for the Turks, leaving their new state butchered and weak. He won.
Armenia was then left with a tiny piece of land and a population that never recovered. The places historically inhabited by them, spanning further than lake Van, covering most of eastern Anatolia, were taken by Turkey, which, to this day, denies the genocide has ever happened. Read: They don’t deny responsibility, they deny its existence.
Even the national symbol of Armenia, Mount Ararat, visible from the capital on a clear day, is outside their territory. At the time of the genocide, the Turks numbered at around ten million, the Armenians at around two million. Today, the Turks number at around 70 million, while the population of Armenia is at less than three million.
Imagine, Arthur told me, where Armenia would be today, if half of its population had not been exterminated and most of its land had not been taken away at such a crucial time. For the first time, loosened after multiple rounds of toasting, I saw something akin to emotion on Arthur’s otherwise permanently expressionless face.
He continued. Now, they are surrounded by enemies. To the west, a closed land border with Turkey. To the east, a closed land border with Azerbaijan. Often referred to as “two nations one people”, Azerbaijan has just won a war over Nagorno Karabakh in 2020, unofficially using Turkish aid and high-tech military equipment, further decreasing Armenia’s territory.
“They have new drones; we can’t defend ourselves from it. Now, our military not so strong.” Arthur said. Indeed, the few military convoys I had seen on the road seemed pitiful, using outdated machinery left over from soviet times.
Now, the victors want a corridor in Armenia’s south, directly connecting Turkey with Azerbaijan, and thus, with the rest of the Turkic world in Central Asia, something Erdoğan has been openly dreaming about: A united “Turan”.
This would sever Armenia’s connection to Iran, on which is relies for trade. Iran being an islamistic republic, Arthur anyway didn’t seem to count them as friends.
To the north, there is Georgia. While by no means an enemy, the giants all around – Turkey, Russia, Iran – and their interests are much more important to it than tiny Armenia. And if tiny Armenia would lose this land border, it would lose its trade route and access to the rest of the world, suffocating.
For now, the Russians are keeping peace. Without their military presence in the country, Arthur fears the worst. But for how long would Moscow value the slight geopolitical influence it gained by siding with Armenia, now that it is heavily absorbed with its failed invasion of Ukraine, resulting in a stalemate war, draining immense amount of resources.
I took a sip from the rum, Arthur shocked. He quickly raised his glass, muttering a toast, taking a swig himself. Apparently, drinking alone, without even making a toast, was not the standard here.
Toast after toast, I learnt what toasting meant. Arthur told me intricate stories, told me elaborate jokes, made philosophy. Sometimes, I was holding the glass for more than five minutes, listening.
Eager to make up my faux pas from before, I tried one of my own, all excited, a little bit nervous even. He didn’t seem impressed.
His father joined us in the evening, a golden heart of a man. Arthur’s new wife didn’t seem to enjoy the progressively more drunken state of her husband, and after the bottle was empty, me passing out on the couch, veins pleasantly pulsating, I heard her cry in their bedroom.
A coffee in the morning, and I was off. Arthur drove me to the main road, where I quickly found my next ride to the last town. I spent my last currency, and Samsun, and elderly man with strong smell, asking me if I would be willing to take some bottles of vodka under my name, took me across the border, talking incessantly about things that I neither understood nor cared about.
Within three days, I had seen the whole country. Hitchhiking had never worked so well.
Thank you for reading! A little something while the book is coming along, from a surprising country with heavy history and uncertain future.
Despite having heard about the genocide before, I was still taken aback to learn about its extent and to see firsthand the effect it has to this day, especially on the people. So much so that I felt to write about it, and perhaps shed some light on a beautiful, little known country tucked away in the Caucasus.