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