Hitchhike to India leg 43: Yerevan to Tabriz

Tuesday 06 October

It’s a good job I didn’t leave it until the last second of the use by date of the Iranian visa, as I would have ballsed it right up. I’ve been running around Yerevan trying to lift a suitable amount of money to get me through the next three countries, as they don’t have an ATM infrastructure.  Consequently I’ve been unable to acquire such a sum, and I’ve been panicking like a baby chicken that can’t break out of its shell. Lucky for me my brain begins working three days later, and I simply use two different cards to lift the maximum withdrawal amount. Duh.

So I have my US dollars. I’ve checked and double checked my visa. I’ve packed everything save my Converse Chuck Taylor’s which I threw into a hostel bin, as my toes were poking out the ends. I go through a pair a year. Seriously I wouldn’t give them to someone with no shoes. Anyway, I was ready to go. So what do I do? I fall for a beautiful Armenian girl who makes it incredibly hard for me to leave. Seriously dear readers, you needed to see those eyes…

Nonetheless, I tear myself away at first light as its a long way to go, through winding roads, with a potentially dodgy border crossing. On paper, its probably my most challenging hitch to date. As its so early, I have to get a taxi to the city limits, but I needed to spend the last of my Armenian Dram anyway, it’s only a couple of quid, so I allow myself the cheat.

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On the lonely road again

As the sun is barely up, I’m dropped on a deserted, half-finished road, somewhere in outer Yerevan. It’s a far cry from the rowdy local bar I’ve come to know and love, and a feeling of loneliness begins to creep in. This is compounded by the taxi driver when he tells me to “fuck my mother” after I give him the fare in small coins. I need my notes for the border exchange office. He’s screaming obscenities at me as the fat buffoon puffs, gasps and squeezes his way back into the driving seat. As he speeds off with various hand gestures (honestly his reaction was like someone had murdered his wife), I’m left to contemplate the empty road ahead, and the friends and lover I’ve left behind.

It doesn’t get any better. A team of yobs over the highway at an all night seedy bar beckon me over and demand I take a drink with them. They reek of booze, one barks at me in broken English, and one has eyes like there are magnets in each pupil. They thrust me a bottle of coke, which I can’t refuse, so I down it as fast as I can. Then they practically jump and dance in front of traffic in an attempt to flag me down a vehicle. I guess their hearts were in the right place.

Hitching with that amount of people round you is always going to be difficult, nigh on impossible. I breathe a sigh of relief when they return to their station to smoke cigarettes and laugh at me from afar. Seconds later, and not a moment too soon, a young man pulls in. He speaks decent English, and can take me as far as Areni, some 200 KM down the road. I bundle myself in and I’m away. It’s 8.30 am.

Noah left his Ark somewhere over there

Noah left his Ark somewhere over there

He’s a little shy at first, but after a few miles begins to regain his confidence in my language. I have my first glimpse of Mount Ararat, where Noah supposedly parked the Ark. We drive close to the Azeri contested land and border of Karabakh, and he explains that the mounds of earth dumped along the roadside are to stop them shooting at the passing traffic. Reassuring indeed. He’s traveling to sell wares on a market stall close to where he can drop me, and he’s getting married on Saturday. Our mutual joy for his good news turns to his despair when he cannot understand why at nearly 36 years of age I’m not married. “But…but…WHY?!” “How do you live?!” “Are you not lonely?” “Life is short!” “Why don’t you have a family?!” And finally; “you’re crazy!”

Border defence

Border defense

In early morning sunshine, hiking up to find a better spot away from local traffic, I’m contemplating his last comment as he waves goodbye. I’m trying to hitchhike from Armenia to Iran. I wouldn’t consider that crazy at all.

Small town village life. They always give you the strangest looks. Everyone from little old ladies, to toddlers, to tractor drivers. They all slow to a stop and inspect you. It’s actually rare that anyone smiles. I think it’s because maybe they are just so utterly confused. I’ve nearly caused car accidents with people trying to get a better look at the pasty white guy carrying a sign which reads “India”. I think I’d look strange too.

Sleepy villages

Sleepy villages

Now here’s a hitchhiking rule of thumb in Eastern Europe. Don’t bother with the Ladas. Pretty much every single driver will ask you for money, they’re only going local, and the cars are ashtrays on wheels. Unfortunately in this part of the world, they are my only option. Several speed away when I say I’m not paying, including one guy whose entire mouth was filled with gold teeth. I don’t mean one or two, I mean the dentures that god has given him had all been turned into a block of gold. Sat smoking in his beat-up red Lada death-trap, he was the complete canon of Bond villains. I count my blessings when he demands money and I reply in the negative.

Don't even bother

Don’t even bother

Just when I think it’s all going to shit, I get really, really lucky. A top of the range Nissan SUV pulls in. These are my bread and butter. The business man in the driving seat can’t speak English, but he can take me to Goris. That’s another 130 odd KM shaved off. I’m edging closer.

He doesn’t hang about either. The roads are pretty bad, and we begin to snake it up into the mountains, but he’s flooring it when he can. As we round a corner, we’re faced with a massive gun in our faces, and it nearly goes through the windshield. Swerving past, we overtake mile after mile of Armenian troops. Every truck as twenty odd faces crammed in the back, armed to the teeth, and all dragging behind some heavy artillery. These boys are getting ready to kick someones ass. In all honesty, I’m happy to be leaving the country while I still can. It’s only a matter of time before the ceasefire ceases. I only hope common sense prevails.

Depositing me in Goris, and I’d be forgiven for thinking that fortune is at my back. I’m making good progress, and I guesstimate I’m over half-way to the border. Again the strange looks as I march through the town, but I realise I could’ve been dropped in a better spot. Traffic is thinning, and just ahead of me lumbers a convoy of five Iranian big rigs. It bodes well for the right direction at least, and yet as I finally reach the edge of town, there isn’t a sinner on the road, except for the occasional fucking Lada.

Through and out the other side

Through and out the other side

Finishing the last of my pumpkin seed breakfast and ration of water, I sit on a rock by the roadside. It is lunchtime, so I guess I could be in for a wait. The only sound is the surprisingly pleasant trickle of water from the open drain at my feet. The wind takes the trees. A local lumbers up a hill across from me. It’s a strange sight. On opposite sides of the road, a Western hitchhiker with all his belongings, and an old man with a broken arm. Not a word was spoken. Public transport shields him from view. When it pulls away he is gone.

Sat here for an age

Sat here for an age

After what seems like an eternity of nothingness on the road, I decide a better option is to hike further along. I might come across a busy intersection. Passing motorists might take more pity on someone struggling along rather than relaxing in the shade. I might not curse every arsehole that just honks and waves. My gamble pays off, and finally a non-money grabbing Lada pulls in. “ARE. YOU. TAXI?” I gesture and point. “No I’m not a taxi”, comes the reply. I’ve struck gold. A ride, and an English speaking driver. I’m on the road again around 2 pm.

No air bags

No air bags

We lurch up into the peaks, and he’s a pleasant man to talk to. Middle aged, a local administration worker, his English is rusty, but he’s by far one of the safer drivers I’ve hitched with. As such, I can’t give him the language practice he would perhaps enjoy, as with the rattling hum of the scratchy motor and the left and right hairpin turns, I’m soon out cold. But not before seeing some incredible scenery in Southern Armenia, the colours of Autumn dazzling the mountainsides.

This is where the time went

This is where the time went

I wake in Kapan. He drives me past his place of work, out of his way to the town suburbs, gives me his email incase I need anything, and sends me on my merry way. He (and a lot of people like him) still can’t believe I intend to continue hitching. “Where is your car?” he polietly enquired when I first sank into the passanger seat. As if I’d casually driven it into a river and needed a lift back to town. Many drivers always try to press public transport upon me, taking me to bus stations or taxi ranks. They just can’t understand that I’m doing this all the way. He’s chuckling to himself as I turn and walk out of town. I’ve forgotten we’re into October, and it’s getting late.

Looking up, I see the sun has moved across the sky quicker than it did a few months ago. The leaves have turned a little darker in the last hour. I remove my clip-on sunglasses to trick myself into thinking there’s still plenty of light. As I’m doing so I look up to see two kids in a car driving straight at me. At the last second, they swerve to the right and peel away, grinning from ear to ear. Had I stepped or staggered to my left without watching for whatever reason, I would have been all over the road. “FUCKING ARSEHOLES!” Followed by a middle finger. It does little to boost my flagging spirits.

I’ve been here before. About an hour ago in fact. Welcome to ROAD. Population: ZERO. Even the Lada’s have given it up. I’m on the verge of that too, when a Mercedes screams by, and five hundred yards up the road, decides to change his mind. His reverse lights flick on, and a shuggle as fast as my packs allow to meet him. He can take me to Meghri, and that’s about 10 KM from the border. Game on.

Now I’ve been in vehicles with fast drivers before, and for the most part I can handle it. I remember many years ago being in a nasty car accident, because I attempted a chicane too fast in the wet, and applied the breaks at the wrong time. I killed a sheep. Consequently I have a good idea when a car is going to leave the road, and this guy is pushing that to the very limit. I move to put my seatbelt on, and he bats my hand away, “no, no, no” clearly offended I should want to protect my own life in his hands. The roads aren’t getting any straighter, we’re getting higher, and he’s literally flying into turns at 120, slamming on at the last second and pulling away back to top speeds. I’m now starring in Deathproof 2: Welcome to Armenia.

We’re up to dizzying heights in the mountains and the roads are brand new now, but there are no crash barriers. There are no. fucking. crash barriers. The highway workers at the roadside are simply not putting them up fast enough. I honestly have no idea what this guy thought he was at, and I have no real idea how I actually survived. The scenery was simply stunning, yet all I could think about was not shitting on his leather seats.

The one advantage of all this, was that I gained some time. I’m dropped as promised 10 K from the Iranian border, in a small mountain town, which has potential as a place to hole up for the night and continue in the morning should things turn sour. Arguably a safer option, I picture myself updating friends, writing to couchsurf hosts, and generally telling people I didn’t make it. That I failed. But it’s ok, because I’m alive.

Not on my watch.

I press on with new energy, intent on at the very least crossing the border tonight. And fortune favours the brave, for within seconds a young man picks me up and drives me to the frontier. He doesn’t allow me to put my seatbelt on either. It’s clearly an offence in this part of the world to get into someones car and put your belt on. I guess they take it as a slight on their driving skills. Well I’ve got news for you guys; YOU CAN’T DRIVE TO SAVE YOURSELVES, LET ALONE ME! And yet, as I spill out into the dust, there I am. This is it. Still breathing. The sun dipping its head. The orange glow from the rocky mountains casts a stunning hue. My heart is racing. Standing at the gates of greatness. All or nothing. I guess now we see if that code is worth the price we paid.

Getting out is always pretty easy. Except this one Armenian is quizzical about the amount of stamps and visas I have in my passport. I’m holding up the small queue as he leafs through my book, but eventually he judges it passable, and the electic exit gate buzzes open. I enter no mans land with purpose and presentiment.

My only map.  Basic Farsi on the back

My only map. Basic Farsi on the back

The Norduz-Agarak border crossing is stunning. The two custom control centres sit in a basin of rocky glory, mountainous fingers pointing to the darkening sky. A bridge over a brown running river connects the two, and with a Kalashnikov pointing lazily in my direction, I stride with as much confidence as I can muster to the Iranian side. Something is in my watery eye. I suprised to hear my voice whisper above the rushing water below. “Come on…come on…be with me now…come on…be with me now…”

Three guards await me at a check point. “SALAM!” I exclaim with a cocky overconfidence and bravado. I thrust my passport over. They pass it about each other with humour, chatting in farsi and chuckling to themselves. He tosses it back to me. “Merci” I respond. And I’m in. I’M IN!! HAHAHAHA! HOW EASY WAS THAT?! HAHAHAHA. YOU’RE JOKING ME!

Oh wait. That wasn’t it. Damn. They were just the grunts. Passport control ahead. I pause. I run through the questions I’ve been told they will ask. To refresh; British, US, and Canadian citizens can’t get a visa without a guide. I don’t have a guide, but I’ve got a visa. I prepare myself for the third degree. I’m a teacher. I’m not visiting anyone. This is my route. OK, here are my fingerprints. No I’m not a journalist. I’m staying 30 days only. Ahhhh…my guide? Yes I’m meeting him over the border. Why is he not here? I don’t know? He’s sorting everything. I just need to call him when I’m through. Another pause. A breath. I open the door.

“SCHOTLANDIA” I foolishly exclaim when asked where I’m from. I’m hoping that I can confuse them into submission in not being British. I wish I hadn’t. I’m asked if this is a Scottish passport, which was an interesting conversation and I would have like to debated the point, but he senses the opportunity to learn something, and asks me to write down the names of all the countries that make up the United Kingdom, including their capitals. I spell ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Northern’ wrong. Hell I couldn’t spell my own name right now.

“What is this?!” He points and my guitar case. “Guitara?”

“I PROMISE IT’S NOT A GUN! AHAHAHAH!”

you. fucking. idiot. stuart.

Satisfied, he stamps my passport. He stamps it. I think I pee myself a little.

“Take this to the next window.”

Ahhh right. It’s just beginning. An older and less friendly looking moustache grills me.

“What is your occupation?”

“Teacher”

“What do you teach?”

“Errr…well…like…residential child care work you know.” Like…err…all sorts of things. It’s a mix bag!”

A smile.

“Where are you going in Iran?”

“I’VE GOT A GUIDE!”

you. fucking. idiot. stuart.

I stumble through a few places I’ve managed to memorise off a map. He places my passport in a photocopier. This, in my experience, is always a good sign. He hands it back, and orders me to take my bags to the next obstacle. The X-ray machine.  No fingerprints, no Spanish inquisition, no full body cavity search.  It’s amazing how much the political situation can change in a short space of time.

I’m greeted by a third guy, grinning from ear to ear. I’m physically shaking. I’m bordering on freaking out. I can’t string a sentence together. “Oh…what? Put my bag here? No? Here? OK? Here? Right? HAHAHA! Yes of course. Haha! Thanks.” They crawl through on the conveyor belt. “Open this please” he gestures to my guitar case. My heart sinks. I’m not going to be allowed into Iran, not because of drugs, guns or booze, but because I’m harbouring a well thumbed copy of The God Delusion. He’s happy to just note that it is indeed a guitar and not a cache of assault rifles. He motions that I zip the case back up.

“Welcome to Iran.”

Legging it from customs

Legging it from customs

I walk directly out the door, ignoring calls for taxis. I walk, head up, focused, intentionally, but without speed to attract attention. Someone asks me where I’m going and I’m sure it’s a loaded question. I mumble a reply and leave the customs building behind, powering for the exit gates some distance ahead. I’m waved through, and I don’t stop, as the road curves up into the rocky hills around. Pushing ever forward, putting distance between me and extradition. I turn the corner. Signs are in Farsi. The sun dips and clouds turn red. A cement truck thunders past. I’m alone. I break down. My shoulders are shaking as tears of joy sting my cheeks. I’m in Iran.

My first mirror selfie ever.  Knackered but elated over the border

My first mirror selfie ever. Knackered but elated over the border

But it’s not over yet. Tabriz is still some 3 hours away and it’s getting dark with conviction now. I find a solid spot to hitch from and I put faith in the stories I’ve heard about the hospitality here. Yet as vehicle after vehicle rumbles by, the sky lets me know that not only do I have to contend with night fast approaching, I also have to deal with rain. It’s 6 pm.

Welcome to Iran

Welcome to Iran

A young local guy sprints up sporting a back pack. Speaking good English, he’s hitching too, and with the gift of local knowledge he’s flagging vehicles down left and right. He’s negotiating not paying a taxi driver when yet another Nissan SUV swings in at my sign. A short chat later, and he can take the two of us all the way to Tabriz. Then as if it couldn’t get any better, I experience my first real taste of Iranian hospitality.

The driver calls ahead to my couch-surf host, and arranges to drop me off in town later. First he wants to take me to his home, meet his family, and feed me home cooked Iranian cuisine. As the rain begins to thunder the windshield, we twist and turn through border roads to our drivers home. Welcomed like long lost brothers, we’re seated on plush, elaborate carpet in a large guest room, offered delicious Iranian tea, and then I have my first food since the lifesaving pumpkin seeds all those hours ago. We sit on the floor crossed legged as is customary, and eat with the family, the toddler wide eyed at the ginger bearded foreigner. The younger women all wear the ancestral Shal – the headscarf – with the older women wearing the full Chador – which covers the whole body. My English speaking companion informs me that they are a very traditionally religious family, and it’s clear I have a lot to learn. So bring it on; I am a sponge.

Iranian hospitality

Iranian hospitality

My face aches from smiling and saying thank you, bowing my respects and foolish attempts to kid on that I know what I’m doing. The whole family come out to see us off, and our host drives us the final 25 KM to Tabriz. The three of us part company with offering me everything they can under the sun. A stay at a hotel in the North, sleeping at homes if I need to, and to call if ever I need anything. My couch-surf host appears and dishes out more hospitality, and after meeting his inquisitive family too, I’m collapsing into a comfortable floor mattress around midnight. 17 hours and 519 KM after I left Yerevan.

Parting ways

Parting ways

My eyes ache from tiredness, but they just about manage to produce a few more tears with an almost incredulous smile on my face. I honestly didn’t think I’d make it. How can I possibly express the emotional roller coaster I’ve experienced today? How can words do it justice? I wish you could all have been here for every step of it. Believe me many of you have been in my head and heart as I’ve sat alone on empty roads, clung on for dear life, or stared down the barrel of a gun. How has this even been possible? Against all odds? Staring defeat in the face? Contemplating a night in a roadside bush? But as I slip into into the deepest sleep I’ve had for a long time, I have this overwhelming feeling that someone – somewhere – is looking out for me.

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The apocalypse

Thursday 01 October

After behaving in no less than the utter depravity that you would come to expect of me dear readers, I have finally admitted that it’s time to move on.  Living la vida licentious loca has been taking its toll, and I’ve not had a proper sleep, healthy lungs or successful visits to the bathroom for days.  Of course this happens to pretty much everyone that passes through here, and they even advise you against drinking from the water fountains.  Those damn nectarines from three weeks ago keep repeating on me.  That, and copious amounts of booze and cigarettes.  There are stories I could tell, but one in particular resonates, its like I’ve not regaled in some time.

About a week back I was hanging out with a super nice chap from LA.  My age, my penchant for hedonism, my lack of ability to take care of myself.  A match made in hell.  I was on the cusp of leaving, when he offered his place up to me, sleeping for nothing in a spare room. Well now this was too good an offer to turn down (considering I still had fish to fry), so I happily accepted, and moved out of the hostel forthwith.

This couldn’t have come fast enough, considering the recent influx of outstanding discourtesy from a dorm room full of dying animals.  A cacophony of snores became my lullaby, followed by inconsiderately raucous chatter in a variety of languages throughout the morning.  Not to mention the constant aggressive rustle of plastic bags at all hours.  I’m telling you they need to ban plastic bags from hostels.  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD; BAN PLASTIC BAGS.  Forced, plastic bag insomnia.  I will point no fingers at the French or the Asians.

So I accepted my friends offer and took the opportunity to get well, nurturing myself back to health and gaining a modicum of sleep in the process.  While my LA friend goes out, I decide to remain in, true to my goal of cleaning up my act.  Unfortunately, it’s here that the wheels came off my grand plan.

Around 6 am in the morning, he busts in and wakes me up, before cavorting round the flat and not giving me a chance to have that sleep I so desperately crave.  Out of his mind on the sauce, he leaves for two hours, before exploding back in like a bull in a china shop.

“THEY’RE PANIC BUYING IN THE STREETS MAN!  IT’S THE FUCKING APOCALYPSE DUDE!  WE NEED TO GET THE FUCK OUT!”  I’M SERIOUS MAN!  THEY’RE FIGHTING OVER WATER IN THE STREETS!  GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!”

Wide eyed, incensed, reeking of liquor with murder in his eyes, he proceeds to tell me that he’s just witnessed a number of people fighting over bottles of water, and how he only just managed to escape with a couple of litres himself.

“TRUST ME MAN!  LOOK INTO MY EYES!  I USED TO BE IN THE MILITARY, AND I KNOW WHEN SHIT’S GOING DOWN!”

Wailing like a screaming banshee with a mouth ulcer, he’s apparently booked a flight out the country, there are only two bottles of water left, and if I value my life I’d better leg it to the airport.

“DO YOU HEAR THAT?! (airplane sound)  THAT’S THE FOURTH PLANE THAT HAS GONE OVER IN THE LAST TEN MINUTES!  PEOPLE ARE GETTING OUT!  WE NEED TO GET THE FUCK OUT MAN!  YOU WANNA KNOW WHY?!  I’LL TELL YOU WHY!  IT’S THE FUCKING APOCALYPSE!”

I could go on.  And indeed it does for sometime, to the point where I either believe it’s an elaborate practical joke I’ve not fallen for (don’t kid a kidder) or he’s on speed.  He’s not a small lad either, so it’s actually pretty terrifying to have someone yelling about the end of the world the same size as Shrek.  Eventually he’s dumped all his stuff into a suitcase, left me a phone, a set of keys, and bolted out the door.

“GET OUT!  GET THE FUCK OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN!”

He’s removed the router, I can’t unlock the phone, and I’ve no way of contacting anyone.  There’s little course of action but to go to find coffee and wifi.  It’s a good job he’s left before school kids start screaming out the back.  Christ knows what he would have made of that.

The phone rings.  It’s the landlady.

Half an hour later I’m standing back in the living room of the apartment which looks like the apocalypse has indeed happened.  Remnants of day long benders, ash everywhere but ashtrays, computer parts and components scattered like a failed KGB cover-up, and two very pissed off, suspicious Armenian women.  And then me, standing holding the baby, receiving the third degree from the landlady and daughter as to why their flat looks like a scene from Brazil.  I washed my hands, handed back the key, and left to return to the hostel.

I mentioned nothing of psychological meltdowns and fearing the end of days.  I covered over as best I could, but apparently I made the mistake of handing the keys back.  I’m still in the dark as to what was really going on, but an educated man would guess something to do with monies owed.  I only hope the dude is alright, as I found myself deleted and blocked shortly after, but still with a lot of questions.  Certainly one of my more unique experiences on the road, but perhaps it’s for the best, as I could easily have been tempted to stay for this kind of regular entertainment.

And so my Yerevan adventure is finally at an end.  I’ve had a wild time here, seeing some beautiful things, seeing some very sad things, meeting some amazing and crazy new friends, and even things I’m might come to regret leaving behind.  But now it’s time to gather my shit and do a runner myself.  Iran calls.

Not quite ready to go

Not quite ready to go

In the passed few months, I’ve been told countless times that the hospitality and friendship there is second to none.  It’s going to have to go a long way to beat Armenia.

First thing tomorrow morning, is hitch number 43.

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The Armenian Genocide

Monday 21 September

After putting off for some time to write about a subject that I’m ashamed to say I knew little or nothing of, it seems fitting to address that tardiness today.  The 21st of September is Armenian Independence Day, enjoying 25 years’ independence from the former Soviet Union.  A public holiday, it’s a very special time for the Armenian people, and in Yerevan they’ll be celebrating with an open air concert later this evening.  However it’s a much darker chapter in history I want to write about, and one which possibly – like me – many of you will have no idea existed, or to what extent.  But a word of warning; this isn’t going to be an easy read.

The memorial at the genocide museum

The memorial at the genocide museum

Under the cover of WWI (and indeed there’s strong evidence that their entry into the conflict was solely to commit their “solution” to the “Armenian question”), the Ottoman government declared Jihad on all Christians except their German/Austro-Hungarian allies.  Very convenient.  They set about the systematic and organised destruction of the Armenian people.  Also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the sheer scale of the genocide is difficult to comprehend and describe here, and would take me many hours to even scratch the surface.  I visited the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial a number of weeks ago, and found myself reading every bit of information I could find, resulting in spending well over four hours shaking my head in bitter sadness.  To my shame, I had no knowledge of the massacre – the 20th-century’s first of its kind – and a “blueprint” for the extermination of the Jews.  Unlike the more recognised “final solution”, I don’t recall the Armenian Genocide ever being mentioned in history class.  The German government were complicit in the massacre, often sending over officers to foresee the atrocities.  A number of its perpetrators would go on to advise the Nazis in mass extermination techniques.

Inside the museum

Inside the museum

And these “techniques” the Ottoman Turks used to almost eradicate an entire race are overwhelming.  At the beginning of WWI, there were some two million Armenians in the crumbling empire.  By around 1922, there were less than 400,000.

“They died all the deaths on the earth, the deaths of all the ages.”

Armin Wenger

In the interim, a party known as The Young Turks would incite, organise and implement the entire Ottoman populous and armed forces to butcher the Armenian way of life.  Many of these perpetrators were deliberately released rapists and murderers, forming “killing squads.”  Armenian men, women and children were driven from their homes, arrested and executed.  Villagers were rounded up for mass burning, where even children were simply given to the fire.  Some 80,000 Armenians burned alive on mass town pyres.  In Trabzon, women and children were loaded onto boats and thrown overboard to the Black Sea.  It’s estimated around 50,000 lost their lives in deliberately capsized vessels.  Mass hangings in the streets, beatings, firing squads, toxic gas, and medical experiments were commonly used in the extermination.  Typhoid inoculations.  Marched to death.  Starvation.  Stripped and died under the unforgiving sun.  Armenian men of military capability were forced to work in concentration camps under the pretext they were helping the war effort.  Then they were butchered by any whimsical means that would get the job done.

Thousands of shocking images and evidence

Thousands of shocking images and evidence

In what was for me perhaps one of the most horrific chapters of the massacre; hundreds of thousands of Armenians were marched out to the Syrian desert town of Dier Ez-Zor in an incomprehensible, hard-driven exodus.  Providing no food and provisions, the government simply let them die on the road, staving, littering the road with corpses, to become infamously known as The Death March.  To this day, the Syrian desert is a mass grave of Armenian victims, scattered with skull and bone, not yet giving up all its secrets.

Rape was commonplace.  Generals gave their men a free rein, ordering them to do whatever they wanted.  Women were displayed naked in the streets and sold as slaves, beaten, tortured, and crucified.  The “good-looking” girls were sexually abused on a regular basis.  The “really beautiful” girls were gang raped by up to fifteen men.  Then they were all left for dead.

Chilling words from Hitler as you leave the museum

Chilling words from Hitler as you leave the museum

With bullets in short supply, many people were just hacked to death, open season. I saw pictures of children missing the backs of their thighs, soldiers posing with disembodied heads, tortured women lying dead in the streets.  If you can think of any way to brutally murder someone – it was happening here.

The allies did little to stop it.  In spite of some pockets of resistance and international humanitarian “Schindlers” saving hundreds of orphans, there were thousands of refugees, and millions beaten, raped and murdered.  Not to mention the confiscation of property, ancient history destroyed, and forced conversion to Islam. A cultural extermination of mind, body and building while the world watched idly by.  Does this sound familiar?

Recognition required

Recognition required

The fallout of the genocide is still being felt today.  Armenians are scattered all over the world, a population so close to being wiped out, and they want answers and apologies.  Only some 22 countries recognise these events in the face of cold, hard fact and evidence.  In Turkey, it is illegal to talk about it, and they refuse to acknowledge these acts ever took place.  They cite a “messy” war, and – much like the Serbs with the Srebrenica genocide – hark back to ancient history in tit-for-tat playground tactics.  “They did this to us  first…in AD something, something”.  The Turkish government will not take vital steps to heal Armenian relations, the borders remain closed, and tensions constantly high.  It’s hard to hide the extermination of 1.5 million people.

Outside the museum, fir trees planted by countries and organisations who recognise the genocide

Outside the museum, fir trees planted by countries and organisations who recognise the genocide

And yet there are many Turkish who acknowledge, apologise and want to open a channel to a much-needed reconciliation.  No nation is completely blameless when it comes to heinous acts either, and war has collateral damage.  History is written by those who hang heroes, and there are two sides to every story.  Communication is key.  But when you’ve got incessant altercation like the following examples in comments sections of documentaries:

“hahaha fucking black armenian gypsy must die hahaha we fucked your mothers hahaha my grand grand father’s father is killed 17 armenian orthodox bitch during the genocide hahahahahaha”

And:

“God bless Armenia and my Christian brothers and sisters across the world. Fuck the genocidal Turks.”

And:

“…this is a topic of pride around turkish dinner tables. just like ISIS today the Turks were proud of what they did to innocent Armenians. What a scum of the earth people you Turks are. your true colors are coming out today with what we see Isis doing to people….scum of earth.”

And: etc, etc…

What chance have we got?

I urge you to do a little research about what happened here.  Pay heed to the evidence and testimony.  Be a witness.  I didn’t include the graphic photographs available at the museum and online, because it’s not easy, and some of the stories you’ll hear and pictures you’ll see will make your blood run cold.  But it’s vitally important, and something we must all do to understand the consequences of ignorance.  We’re allowing it to happen all over again.

We're not learning from history

We’re not learning from history

But here in the summer sun there’s hope.  The Armenians are a wonderful people and I will be enjoying their hospitality for a few days more, basking in their warmth and friendship, before my hitch to Iran.  Happier prose soon to come.

Viva Armenia.  And viva an honest Turkey too.  Yes you also have your victims and they dearly need to be remembered, but the sheer size and scale of this act can only and obviously be recognised as a genocide.  Take the first steps.  You can stop the pain and the hate.

“I remember and I demand.”

The memorial eternal flame

The memorial eternal flame

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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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