Silk Road (3): Fast Car

“You got a fast car

I got a plan to get us out of here

I been working at the convenience store

Managed to save just a little bit of money

Won’t have to drive too far

Just’ cross the border and into the city

You and I can both get jobs

And finally see what it means to be living.”

~Tracy Chapman

I am not sure if Armenians are ‘worse’ drivers than their Georgian neighbors or, actually, ‘more skilled’, considering the incredibly poor state of their transportation infrastructure. The road leading to the Georgian-Armenian border indeed is only one lane and once past it, it becomes one of the worst major roads I have been on so far. Avoiding the humongous holes and the incoming traffic was an incredible feat (our driver even proceeded to overtake an ambulance whose lights and siren were on). We were duly stopped by the police a few kilometers after for speeding.

The driver’s skill was even more incredible considering that a lot of the cars in Armenia are beyond ancient: I have never seen so many old Soviet cars since I lived in Bulgaria in the 1980s. I think literally all the trucks we saw were ‘Zils’ or ‘Kamaz’. Funnily enough though, the Armenians seem to take a lot of pride in their cars. Indeed, our driver – who, despite the fact that we picked up the minivan at the Tbilisi bus station, his lack of spoken Russian and his abruptness, was Armenian – got really upset when we ate some chakapuri (bread with cheese) and a few crumbles fell on the floor of the car. He did not calm down even after we cleaned up everything. All this even though the minivan was an ancient Mercedes with worn-off interior and holes in the plastic dashboard.

The area along the border here is very mountainous but the landscape changes from plush, almost tropical in Georgia to arid, almost desert-like in Armenia (similar to the one around Kars in Turkey). The border crossing itself was very straightforward: modern and absolutely no queuing at all. The kids and Georgia were sitting in the back, while I was squeezed in between a lady with more bags than she could carry and a poker player with just a ‘man’s bag’ in his hand. Still, she asked me, and not him, to help carry one of her bags across the border (was she a ‘trader’ of some sort?).

We arrived in Yerevan under a scorcher. If the driver likes you he will stop anywhere you ask him too. I had developed a connection with the poker player, who was in Tbilisi overnight to play as he had been banned from all casinos in Yerevan, so he helped us get to our hotel. We found tennis in common with him: Andre Agassi, who, according to him, is an Armenian born in Iran and living in US (the lady thought that even Serena Williams is of Armenian origin!).

The old town of Yerevan is like Chernokonevo, the village upon which my home town, Dimitrovgrad, was built after WW2 – a few shanty houses. But unlike Dimitrovgrad, Yerevan is an ancient city with rich history and culture. All the wars and earthquakes must have put a heavy toll on this city. Maybe, this is why there is massive amount of construction going on, much more than I saw in either Istanbul or Tbilisi, or, in fact, in any European city. To see ancient Armenian churches and castles one has to go in the surroundings of Yerevan and across the border in Turkey.

In fact, Yerevan is very modern: there are a lot of art installations and monuments all over the city. But most of the architecture is still Soviet style. Yerevan is also very vibrant. While we were there it was full of street musicians, there was even a live concert of a Russian band, and the singing fountains in Republic Square were on every evening.

Armenian food is somewhat similar to Georgian – just slightly different versions of the same dish. I did not see the khinkali equivalent in Armenia though. And, of course, Georgian wine is out of this world. But I found Armenian fruits sweeter, especially the apricots (I am really gutted I did not try the Georgian watermelon, though). The Georgians have this ‘churchuri’ made out of dried fruits and nuts held together by grape molasses; the typical Armenian equivalent is to take the whole dried fruit and fill it up with nuts – both are absolutely outstanding!

As I mentioned before, we are doing this trip the backpackers’ way, meaning we use as much public transportation as possible. Turkey was perfect in that sense – very easy. Georgia was ok – we used the metro. But while there is more Cyrillic on the signs along the road in Armenia (than in Georgia) Yerevan’s metro is very small and the signs are only in Armenian. Therefore, we walked till, under 34C, at some point it became impossible. So, we took a taxi back and forth to the Armenian Genocide Memorial – it cost us less than $2 equivalent each way and both drivers were very pleasant and polite (I could communicate in Russian).

Having spent some time now also in Armenia, combined with our experience in Georgia, made me reflect on our expectations regarding the service industry and how it affects our views of a country and its people. In Tbilisi, the restaurant waiter may indeed have been less attentive according to our standards, but we felt very welcomed when we were invited to the house of our friend’s friend and treated to tea, coffee and fruits. In Yerevan, even though the hotel’s clerk was clueless when asked basic tourist information and she clearly didn’t seem to think it was part of her job description to help, the doorman kindly helped us.

It made me question whether the level of service we expect is linked to our culture. In particular, I guess, I was surprised at my own Western bias, considering I grew up behind the Iron Curtain. It made me wonder what possible hope we have to teach our kids tolerance and understanding of other cultures by any other means than travelling through them