Hitchhike to India leg 42: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Monday 31 August

After much consideration I have decided not to write an entry about my time in Baku.  I’d rather not give the place the time of day.  Perhaps if and when I come to write my memoirs, I’ll include my experiences there of money-grubbing, rude, angry, hate-filled, thieving, aggressive British ex-pats, Azeris and hookers; living in a gaudy, fake, oil-rich shit-hole charade.  For now I’d much rather tell tales of hope and happiness and successful hitchhiking; with the wonderful Armenians.

Learning lessons from my Baku hitch, I start out early, concerned not about distance, but the length of time it takes.  The roads into Armenia snake up into the mountains, and a relatively short 240 KM can take about 5 hours.   I needn’t of bothered however, because it’s just one hitch after another, starting with a local mini bus that drops me off at Tbilisi city limits.  This included a delightful conversation with a beautiful female conductor, who was very helpful indeed.  High spirits, an awesome hitch spot, and still early.  The day bodes well.

At last I'm out!

At last I’m out!

I don’t even have my ‘Yerevan’ sign out before someone has pulled in.  He’s a crazy-loud German/Georgian guy, with a beaming smile and a voice like a fog horn.  He drives as fast as he talks, and while consistently taking his eyes off the road to chat in very broken English, he tells me he’s a racing driver.  He’s got to be on speed.  He then keenly shows me photographs on his iPhone (again while not concentrating on actually driving), all of which display a banged-up, mangled, write-off which once appeared to be a Mitsubishi Lancer.  Reassuring.  At this point he’s driving on the wrong side of the road, and we narrowly avoid a head-on collision.  A short time later (thankfully) he’s dropped me in a small town on the road to the border.  A change of shorts maybe, but it’s still a near perfect start.

“Ahhhh India!”  Exclaim curious locals as I prepare to search for a decent place for cars to pull in.  They crowd around eagerly.  My hitch board always draws attention, but it’s often difficult to gauge whether it’s unwanted or not.  “Yerevan?!”  I exclaim loudly, and jab my finger in what I hope is the right direction.  Hearty nods of agreement encourage me, and thanking them, I set off on foot.  It’s not yet midday.

On roads such as this, I like to walk until I get tired, in order to find a better spot to stand, and get away from local traffic, taxis, or anyone who might bother me.  In doing so, I usually trail my hitch sign behind me, just in the off chance someone will give me a ride before I’ve stuck the thumb out for real.  This is one such occasion, as a Mercedes slows after maybe 100 yards of marching.  Two tanned and hairy men are up front, smoking heavily.  It’s these rides that I’m often in two minds about.

“Yerevan?”  I smile, questioningly.  The driver grunts a response.

“No money, no money!”  I exclaim and or ask, making the universal “I’ve got no money” sign.

“Da! Da!  Niet problem, niet problem.”

Oh well.  Here goes nothing.  I bundle myself in, leaving a size 8 in the foot-well, door open, as I heave my packs into the boot.  My worst nightmare is someone taking off with my stuff and not me.  It happened to a friend in Colombia.

There’s not a word of English.  This often suits me, as I’m sometimes not in the mood for small talk and idle chit-chat, but it can be a little disconcerting.  Perhaps they don’t want to risk getting attached to their latest victim.  It’s worse when they insist on talking to/at you in their language, even though you’ve made it perfectly clear you don’t understand a word.  The ride is silent as we reach the border, cross with no problems (contrary to Azerbaijan), and begin the mountainous leg of the journey.  It starts to rain.

The Armenian mountains

The Armenian mountains

“VIVA ARMENIA!”  The driver yells, smiles and turns to me.  I nearly shit myself.  I nervously laugh and continue the silent status quo.  I’m still not 100% comfortable, but it’s looking good.  The locals at the border were very genuine, well-wishing that I had a good time in their country.  The officials were not concerned I’d been in Azerbaijan, and welcomed me in regardless.  Had it been the other way around, I would have had to re-think my route.

We pull in behind a freezer wagon.  The two drivers disembark, and I can make out an exchange of papers, printed documents and signed notes.  This is it.  I’m to be removed from the car, the bolted truck doors opened to a sea of blinking faces.  Another one nobody will miss.  There’s a sigh of relief as we get underway and I’m still heading for Yerevan.

Staring through a rain-speckled window and from what I can see through the misty clouds, Armenia is beautiful.  We switch-back through hairpins, ears popping into the mountains.  Ramshackle villages shoot by, people ambling about their business.  Tumbledown dwellings, scrap vehicles, crumbling infrastructure.  Yet somehow it all works, and comes together to form a rustic land where time forgot.  It’s charmingly rural retro.

I’m always anxious when a hitch ride stops.  I’d rather just keep on keeping on to my destination.  These guys are on a mission to buy fruit from every roadside seller going, bartering with villagers every few kilometres.  They offer me everything.  Nectarine after nectarine is passed back, and even when I refuse, they insist.  A conveyor belt of fruit.  An hour or so over the border, and we’ve stopped at a shack by the roadside.  They beckon me to get out.  This is it this time.  Frog marched to a trap door, greeted by a sea of blinking faces.  Another one nobody will miss.  Maybe stuck up on a meat hook for good measure until ol’ Leather Face arrives.

Buying fruit

Buying fruit

Once again my apprehension proves unfounded, as they buy me a delicious lunch of charcoal-grilled chicken kebab and Armenian coffee, but I’m still a little on edge as the driver repeats “SCHOTLANDIA!” down the phone receiver to a disembodied voice.  I’m always concerned they’re calling some trafficking gang.  He passes the device to me.

Topping up the tyres

Topping up the tyres

A short conversation later with his perfect English speaking brother and they’ve found out where they can drop me in the capital.  I do think it’s useful for me to be on my toes and not get complacent, but on occasion I feel ashamed and foolish when I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt.  I’ve been edgy all the way, yet the two guys have been nothing but wonderfully hospitable.  Killing me with kindness.  I allow myself to relax for the remaining drive, passing the beautiful Lake Sevan, and on into the city.  I arrive in record time, in daylight, and with a Friday night ahead of me.  They drop me a few blocks from my hostel.

I’m still not sure where I’m meant to be, but I needn’t have worried, as no less than four locals approach and ask in perfect English if they can help.  Eventually a girl emerges from a cafe and asks where I need to be.  “Come with me” she says, kindly.  A few blocks later and she’s walked me right to my door.  I stumble in to the most comfortable digs I’ve stayed in in months.  Yet for the first time ever, each bunk has a bible attached to it!  Not for much longer:

Replaced with some more enlightening reading

Replaced with some more enlightening reading

Regardless I then proceed to have an absolutely blindingly debaucherous night with fellow hostel guests, American Peace Core volunteers and Yerenvantsi.  There’s a drink fueled Damien Rice guitar serenade to a gorgeous German girl somewhere circa 5 am.

Armenia; I think I’m going to like it here.  Although those fucking roadside nectarines have already given me the shits.

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What dreams may come…

Thursday 27 August

I’ve been forced to stay an extra day in Tbilisi before a potentially tough hitch to Yerevan in Armenia.  This is partly to do with my own misdemeanors, which I’m not going to divulge here.  You can damn well wait for the book.  Remind me.  This is also as a result of not being able to find any of my stuff, as the hostel staff have taken it upon themselves to play hide-and-seek with it, and it’s taken me all day to sleep off the previous weekend, and find everything I own.

Which I guess is entirely my fault on both parts, as I have a tendency to create a sort of bomb crater with my belongings, in order to mark ones territory.  So, I’ve been investigating the whereabouts of my underwear, and sitting head in hands at the shame I subjected upon myself over the last few days.  Again, you’re going to have to wait for that tale of filth and woe.

So as a result I’ve nothing new I’m willing to tell you.  But it just so happens that my sister posted the picture below on her instagram earlier today.  This was taken shortly after I finished drama school, and I was attempting to ply my trade with outdoor Shakespeare, circa 2004.  The still here is from my role as an Indian Sadhu version of The Soothsayer, in the sweeping epic of Antony and Cleopatra.

It took me weeks to get that tribal "tattoo" off my head.  Folk were convinced I was going to start trouble in bars.

It took me weeks to get that tribal “tattoo” off my head. Folk were convinced I was going to start trouble in bars.

I had a lot of fun with that part.  He’s a fortune teller of sorts, and coincidentally enough (and no word of a lie), I was going to regale you today with a series of freaky dreams I had last night.  And also because I’ve got sod-all better to post, and I want to milk it for all it’s worth.  It’s a tenuous link but a link nonetheless.  So get yourself a coffee or some booze, sit back, relax, indulge me, and understand that not one iota of what I write below is fabricated.

Part One.

I’m sitting on a sofa in a field full of sofas.  The skies are dark and grey, and the wind is making the viridian grass sway violently.  I become aware that every sofa in the field has a large, blonde Russian woman sitting on it, caked in make-up, wearing fishnet stockings. Now they’re not obese, but they’ve certainly got substance, and they’re all very attractive.  I turn to my right to realise there’s someone lying under a blanket on the sofa close to mine.  Instantly I know who it is, although all I can see are her feet.  It’s my mum.

Then a man in a suit appears and demands that the Russian lady to my left returns his Manu Chao album.

Part Two.

The field gives way to what I think was a building site.  The skies are still overcast, the buildings are crumbling, there’s graffiti adorning every wall.  I’m at a concert of some aging European rock star, with a blue shirt and gray hair.  There’s an overarching sense of tension.  I begin to notice the crowd are aggressive, but the only way I can flee – is by trying to fly.  Yet every-time I do, I can’t control it, and I jump too high.  One of my greatest fears (which will likely never come to be realised), is that moment you potentially leap too high on the surface of the moon, and float off into space forever.  Horrible.  Unable to control the gravity, I’m desperately reaching for and grasping at the crumbling buildings, clinging on for dear life.  Repetitively I can’t get it right, like some superhero learning how to fly and failing miserably.  Legs in the air, fingertips clawing at chalk.

Meanwhile the hostile crowd below are throwing large, black volcanic rocks at my head.

Part Three.

I find myself in a wooden floored, stone walled, old crofters cottage.  It’s still dark, in a sort of brown, dirty, medieval hue.  There’s a significant number of very old people standing in the room facing me.  I can’t make out their faces, but they’re laughing, and it’s me telling the jokes.  I’m the life and soul of the party.  An ancient face leers in close to mine and mumbles something I’m annoyed I don’t remember.  I loudly reply:

“Well that’s because you’re all coffin dodgers isn’t it?!”

Nobody laughs.  Not a sound is heard.  I want the world to swallow me up.

Now this was astounding; I literally felt embarrassed.  I know it.  I turned bright red.  In my sleep is was convinced I turned bright red. I’ve never been mortified in all my waking life.  People stop laughing.  Faces drop.  Nobody is impressed.  I hear a younger, more sinister voice just next to me whisper:

“I bet you wanted them to move on from that one didn’t you?”

I ask one of the old women about my filthy muddy jeans, covered in muck.  She tells me not to worry, because I can always get new ones.

Part Four.

I’m in a military uniform, trying to destroy German fighter planes on an airfield, sometime around 1942.  I’m only able to use my hands.  Flapping at tail rudders with my hands.  About the same moment, I consider that a time travel story about the Massacre of Glencoe would do well at the box office.

Part Five.

Things take a turn for the worse, and this, apart from every episode of sleep paralysis, is the most terrifying thing I’ve experienced subconsciously.  Of all these dream scenes, there was always a through line of impending doom.  I’m at a local store in India.  There’s a crush.  I’m surrounded by dark-skinned locals, all reaching for me with hands, fists and baseball bats.  I feel them.  I can’t breath in my sleep.  It’s terrifying.  I’m convinced I’m there, in real time, about to be torn apart by the screaming, baying mob.  I manage to fight free, only for a man to swing what should be a killing blow.

With a roll of Christmas wrapping paper.

I wake up shortly after.

Now when I went to sleep, I was on top of the bed sheet, my head on a pillow, and lying underneath the duvet cover.  When I woke up, my head was under two pillows, I was lying on the bare mattress (the bed sheet nowhere to be found) and I was INSIDE the duvet cover.  Cocooned.  Like a sleeping bag.  Mental.  Fascinating.  And all, once again I assure you dearest readers; 100% true.  The power of the unconscious mind eh?  Just why couldn’t it have been a hardcore porn fantasy with Eva Green, the hot chick from Two Broke Girls and the dude who played Oberyn Martell?!

It should be noted that no drugs were taken during the making of these dreams, however previously I had read a number of X-Men comics online, been involved in breaking up a fight, and watched several episodes of Doctor Who.

Thank you for reading my cheeky chums.  I hope you garnered a touch of entertainment from my tempestuous psyche.  Normal service resumes tomorrow and it’s back to travel.  Leg 42:  Tbilisi to Yerevan.  The search for Spock continues…

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Hitchhike to India leg 41: Tbilisi to Baku

Friday 07 August

Tbilisi was getting the better of me. Apart from ridiculously close heat, attempting to get off the booze for elongated periods of time was proving, as ever, something of a difficulty. My face was melting off, I’d sung Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” at karaoke more times than the band performed it live, and I’d managed to make a stripper fall in love with me. Or maybe that was just to buy her drinks. One of the two. My Azerbaijan visa was finally ready (at a push). It was time to move on.

I set off early afternoon, confident in a straight run to the border, then a decent highway all the way to my destination of Baku. I love hitching to a new country, because aside from getting that all important flag sticker for my guitar, autostop at a border is like taking candy from a baby. I was envisaging arrival in Baku by sundown, needing only two rides to do so. Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups.

Sure I made the border in good time. This was in part thanks to my first ride of the day, a Russian water polo player, who kindly takes me to a better spot outside the city. I then chance my arm in one of the thousands of death-trap, tin-can Ladas, filled to the brim with large Azerbaijanis. Making a snap decision about my safety, I squeeze in, and regret it immediately. Not because they’re threatening in any way, purely because the driver’s foot is glued to the accelerator pedal, and he’s invoking Aryton Senna, delusions of grandeur at being an F1 driver. He’s a man possessed. But between him and his two companions, nobody gives a damn but me. They nonchalantly chain smoke, turn round to shoot the breeze with me in broken English, take eyes off the road, and swing into corners with wild abandon. He’s pushing the rusting soviet icon to its limits, rattling passed three or four vehicles at a time on blind corners and summits. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the most dangerous thing about hitching is whether or not you get a good driver. No exceptions here.

I’m thankful to be alive as we reach the border. It turns a little sour when they ask for money, but they’re all smiles when I lightheartedly explain I’m not paying. Trying their luck I guess. In a lot of Eastern European countries, and indeed in the East I understand, you have to establish beforehand that you’re not paying. I’ve often thought this a little rude (and potentially offensive) so I’ve always given the benefit of the doubt. This trust was about to come back and bite me in the ass.

Walking across borders is usually a breeze. Hundreds of trucks and cars sit in the baking heat for hours, while I march effortlessly through. Not so here. It’s chaos. Not even organised chaos. Utter chaos. A swaying mass of people fight for privilege in the passport control line, with one kiosk open, and only one customs official in sight. There’s more pushing and shoving here than at a Supergrass concert, and there’s more gold in their mouths than in Fort Knox. You’ve never seen so many gold teeth. Arguments blaze readily, flashing shiny molars, but not just between one or two people. The whole crowd seems to get involved in everyone elses business. My whiter than white skin (actually quite red), sticks out like a sore thumb, and I somehow find myself consistently at the back of the queue. It’s time to get dirty. I force my way into the throng.

Taking maybe an hour to get out, it takes maybe another hour to get in. At least they have a queue barrier system in place on the Azerbaijan side, but that doesn’t stop folk trying to squeeze past. I put a stop to this by putting both hands out to hold onto the barrier, and slowly but surely I shuffle forward. I’m asked where I’m from by a grinning local. A couple of attractive Russian girls shoot sheepish smiles my way. A side door is thrown open and all hell breaks loose.

A customs guard marches out, hotly pursued by a granddad who is screaming bloody murder. Beyond him, I spy at least three bawling children, and the crowd begins to throw its hat in the ring with a general commotion of disgust.  In seconds, a crew of uniformed women appear from nowhere and enter the fray. The door slams shut. Drug smuggling granddad is still going hell for leather behind the partition, and everyone is craning necks to get a better look.  As the entertainment dwindles, I thank my lucky stars I’m allowed into the country.

Not without a quick fire quiz though. They’re always easy to spot, they’re about a subtle as a brick. Strolling over, the high-ranking official will casually ask where you’re from, leafing through passport stamps. “Ahhh Mexico!” “Ahhhh Peru!”  And then boom! The loaded question I’m waiting for:

“Have you been to Armenia?”

“No”

“Good. Don’t go there.”

As many of you will be aware, Azerbaijan and Armenia aren’t best mates. They’ve been squabbling over a patch of land for years, and in spite of a ceasefire, certain border areas between the two countries are still subject to random skirmishes, and littered with landmines. It’s still classified as a war zone. You can’t cross the border at all, which is why in order to see Armenia and continue into Iran, I will need to return to Georgia. But that’s ok, because I can visit my stripper girlfriend…

First car over the border takes me to a place called Ganja. I don’t need to make any comment at all.

Within a few moments, I’m picked up in a big rig. These truckers are a merry sort. They’re constantly beaming from ear to ear, bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, ecstatic that you’re along for the ride, as if they know something you don’t. Bless him, he gets on the phone to his mum, (he must be pushing mid 50’s himself), and for mile after mile we proceed to have this three-way translated conversation. His mum tells him what to ask, he asks, I respond, he tells his mum, she translates what it means. Hilarious. He can take me all the way to Baku, but with the day not getting younger, riding a slow-ass trailer, and him pulling in for dinner; I opt to push on and try my luck. Warmly thanking him, he looks utterly dejected and I feel quite heartbroken as I leap down from the lofty perch of the cabin. My decision is instantly rewarded however, as an expensive looking Mercedes mini-bus swings in, and I’m bundled into a comfortable back seat with a family of seven and a baby. He takes off at warp speed, stark contrast to crawling at 40, and I settle back knowing I will be in Baku in time for a beer…

I wake at night, with the family piling out in near darkness. Lamps from a roadside restaurant are the only glow, apart from the infrequent glare of speeding headlights. The large matriarch with a gob full of Au demands money. Here we go again. I pull the dumb foreigner routine, attempting to explain I said I had no money (which I did), and that I don’t understand. Nobody else is confronting me. The driver, four other guys, and the young lady with the baby avert their eyes, hands in pockets, some wheezing on smokes. The growling mama behemoth tosses her head in disgust and turfs my bag out onto the gravel, mumbling what I can only imagine are obscenities, formerly smiley shiny gold mouth hidden with a grimace. The unmagnificent seven climb back into the vehicle, while I stand rooted to my spot, inches from the sliding doors, attempting to look them all in the eye. Every occupant rigidly sits face forward, as my nose presses as close to the glass as I dare. I shake my head. For shame. For shame. And they know it too. Leaving a traveler stranded. A stranger in their land, thrown out onto the side of the road in the darkness. The tyres kick up dust as they speed away.

And so what am I going to write about Azerbaijan? What am I going to tell people about Azerbaijan when I see them? Or I go home? What shall I report to the rest of the world? This is how you treat people here? Are you not meant to open your door wide to a wanderer? Is not the hospitality in muslim countries meant to be a shining light against xenophobia?! Some people really don’t think.

Nor it seems do I. A trucks horn blasts a warning as it thunders past, reminding me I’m standing on a highway. I turn to look at my options, but strangely enough, I’m not that concerned just yet. I’ve been in this situation before, only I wasn’t wearing shorts. Shades of 8 hours on the side of a sub-zero road in Poland come flooding back. At least here I can still feel my fingers and toes. This is a walk in the park compared to that experience, but I could still do with a hero.

Ask and you shall receive. He comes in the form of a young man, who approaches from the nearby diner. He’s seen the whole episode, and in broken English he tells me he can take me all the way to Baku, beckoning me to join him and his two companions. One is an aging Chinese man, the other an Azerbaijani who is apparently “in oil”. The two of them are doing their best to save each others souls by smashing back straight vodka. They offer me food and drink, and after a trip to the foulest roadside toilet I’ve ever encountered, we’re underway into the night, blasting out Turkish music while I discover my driver is another rally wannabe.  He doesn’t appear to care that he’s behind the wheel of a Mercedes saloon, as he’s convinced it’s a 4×4, and he’s flying off and into potholes, curbsides and crash barriers. If I make it in one piece it’ll be a miracle.

It’s a short twenty minutes of blaring music and drunken camaraderie before the two on the booze have passed out.  (As I predicted – with the motion of the vehicle, they weren’t going to keep that up for too long).  I’m left to my own thoughts in the gloom.  It’s days like this that really highlight the juxtaposition of “what the hell am I doing?” And “this is the best thing ever”. We’re still some three hours away, and I’m guessing it’s around midnight already.  I’m too wired to sleep, and those that know me best, will understand how my brain would begin to eat itself in such solitude. I’ve never been so happy to see city lights.

Baku's flame towers

Baku’s flame towers

Baku. The oil rich Caspian sea. Another jewel on the silk road. And what a jewel it appears to be. The architecture diverse and unusual. The lights dazzling. The empty road through the city winds round an eclectic array of buildings, skyscrapers, ferris wheels and giant flags so enormous, they appear to flutter in slow motion in high winds. I’m due to meet up with a couch surfing host, but traveling with no phone, there’s no way to contact him. Originally I’d planned arriving early to a wi-fi spot and firing off an email. After delivering the blind drunk zen master home, and without prompting, the driver calls his English-speaking girlfriend. A short conversation later, and I have a place to stay for the night. In the face of the polar opposite, the incredible kindness of strangers. It’s around 2 am.

Then a wheel falls off the car.

Well this really is of no surprise, considering how many curbsides he was trying to destroy with it. The front drivers side-wheel is off its axle. It’s a taxi ride home. But it’s not long before I’m wearily climbing a flight of crumbling stairs, in a tower block that could have been the set for Saving Private Ryan. Once inside however, my host’s abode is actually very comfortable. They hastily prepare me my first real meal of the day. I actually never eat when I set out on a hitch, as I think it gives me an edge, and keeps me awake longer. I wolf down a delicious omelette at around 3 am, before crashing out on their sofa bed. Angels on my shoulders.

Lying awake in the moments before sleep takes over, and I wonder how I’m ever going to tell people about days like today. Sometimes, all the right words in the world just don’t cut it.  Such fluctuating emotions cannot be expressed as keenly as they’re felt. And this is only the beginning. With Azerbaijan to explore, Armenia in a few weeks time, and my Iran visa in the pipeline; the silk road is on. Shit is about to get very real. I just hope the wheels (head) don’t come falling off.

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