Before reading the story about how we got from Georgia to Armenia, you need to know a few things that made this particular evening quite stirring for us.
- Our summed Russian vocabulary consists about 200-500 words. We can hold up small conversations but are not able to speak nor understand something very specific as details for car dealing and such.
- We are from ex-Soviet country and our vague memories of men in a group, wearing leather jackets and sweat pants with gold chains around the neck, automatically refer to some sort of bandits.
- Dear Moms and other faint hearted readers, maybe this post is better to skip. For your own good.
3rd of November
11 AM, Tbilisi
The morning had started out in our small and cold Georgia Hostel. A quick breakfast, packed the bags and said a farewell to all the Japanese hanging out in the lobby (still not sure why or how they all end up choosing that place). Our first mission: to find a marshutka that can take us a out the city center and start thumbing from there. Marjanishvili square with the traffic chaos, was a place to start from. After asking around and receiving few angry “NET” (no in russian) from the drivers, somehow found the right spot to wave down one of the yellow mini-buses.
Despite the first marshutka, number 118, being full (it just drove past) the second one had enough room for both of us to stand. Behind the wheel was one of those grumpy drivers who told us no before, but we just suggested that he was trying to be helpful as he was going the opposite direction to make a full circle in the city center, before driving to the outskirts.
With the help of dear co-passengers and our causal conversation in Russian, we got to the resolution where we needed to be dropped off. On the crossroad to Rustavi and Marneuli we were sent off with good wishes and friendly smiles. Even the driver smiled, or that’s how it seemed to us.
From there on everything was supposed to go very smoothly, as we thought that all the passing cars will go to Armenia. Well, the first car didn’t quite go there, but was going to Marneuli center instead. Close enough, and we happily took the ride with the free coffee he provided.
3.30 PM, still in Marneuli
About 2 hours after arriving, and desperately waving our signs to cars, we had changed the spot of hitch-hiking several times. Along with this we caught unnecessary attention from some locals walking back and forth, who were probably wondering what goodies we have in the backpacks. There were a few drivers willing to take us under their circumstances: first ones were almost blacked out drunks; others were asking gas money in exchange of sitting the next 4 hours on top of their mandarin cases; and the last but not least was not even sure which part of Armenia was he going, although he was sure he can take us wherever we want to go (we did not tell) so we gratefully refused his offer.
We were getting desperate after finding out there is not even a single bus going to Yerevan. For some weird reason, they were only going to Baku, Azerbaijan.
But the luck didn’t leave us and two identical cars, both “Opel” brand with transit numbers to be precise, stopped. For our question if the ride is for free, they said “koneshno!” and off we were towards the border where they initially planned to drop us off.
We sat in the car driven by Karan. 27 years old proud father of two with a humble smile and trustworthy looks. The other car driving in front of us was operated by David, who we nicknamed “the Wingman”. A chubby bubbly guy in his 40’s, wearing traditional “business casual” clothes consisting of sweatpants, wind breaker and lacquered shoes.
After 40 minutes of driving along with a pit stop to load up big bags of laundry detergent and a few cases of mandarins (?), we made it few hundred meters from the border, to a tire change shop.
Out of nowhere a third Opel, with same kind transit numbers, emerged and there he was – another Karan or “The Boss” if you like.
The Boss was something you would expect from Russian Godfather type of figure – long leather jacket, black jeans and the same classy shining shoes as David had. Fat thick gold chain around his neck matching perfectly the semi-glamorous gold rings in his fingers. After a short dialogue with the other Karan, he approached us and greeted with a strong handshake. He also offered to take us straight to Yerevan, if we were willing to wait for an hour till they fix the cars.
A quick look at the road, where rarely any cars were going, and a glance at our companions, that looked a bit shady but trustworthy enough, and we had a decision. “Ladno” we said, as it was the best option we had at that point.
As we were standing there, looking the cars getting new tires and more tires being exchanged and put in the back of one of the cars, we started discussing with each other. Why are they changing the tires before they cross the border? Hmmm…. We only got to two good reasons: a) they are bringing drugs over the border hidden in the tires; b) the old tires are just so worn out to be driving anyway. Reasonable doubt included of course – they didn’t leave the old ones behind, and the whole bunch of chemicals we loaded into trunks earlier was weird as well.
5 PM, Border crossing
Crossing the first border went with ease as we chose to pass by foot while Karan was driving his car. About 100m of drive in the no-man’s land between the Georgia and Armenia, he parked his car and explained us something in his broken English. We picked up that he needed to fill in some paperwork and register the vehicle in his name so we had to wait in the car. We can use the keys to start it if it gets cold, or even drive around if needed.
He left the car, the keys and everything in it with us.
6 PM, Still at the border
Well that’s odd. An hour gone, nobody has come yet and it was getting damn cold. But IF the car really was loaded with drugs and we would be now starting it, then that would make us drug smugglers, right?
We chose to sit in the cold and wait…
7 PM, Getting worried
It was cold, it was dark and we were getting hungry.
We were afraid of leaving or starting the car.
7.30 PM, something is happening
All of them, two Karans and David, came back and discussed something very fiercely while starting the car. Oh goodie – we are on the way! We couldn’t be much happier. A brief moment later we realized that there is still some hold up. The car was driven to one of the dark corners (still between two borders) and the gang continued their intense discussion. Soon enough they start kicking the car with their feet and firsts, till the decorative parts give up and fall off.
As quick as the rumbling started, it stopped. A fellow officer from border security came to the scene, gave an approving look at the car and ticked something very important off from a bunch of papers. And that was it, paperwork was done! We crossed the Armenian border as well and off we went.
Still creeped out of the car trashing, we got other news – another vehicle joined our tour. A young chap, who was called “Durak” [“stupid” in russian] by the crew. He seemed to be a henchman in the odd team. His job was to please everybody’s wishes at once. Was it buying cigarettes for the Wingman or fetching coffee for the Boss, he was there in every step and making us come to a stop after every few kilometers, to fulfill the tasks. The last addition to our fleet had local plates on the car so we reported this back to our relatives via SMS, just to be sure there is a lead in case anything happens to us. A quick look into GPS showed clearly that we were not driving towards Yerevan.
That was enough to get us worried again.
11 PM, Driving towards Azerbaijan
The roads got more bumpy and curvy, the temperature was getting lower as we were driving higher in the mountains. In the matter of fact, these roads were going towards unstable Azerbaijan border.
What – why? If you have few things you can think off in this situation then they would be (not in particular order), a) we will be trafficked as slaves; b) we will be sold off to some dodgy truck stop bar as an accessory; c) we would be forced to work in a circus and entertain crowds of children with our big red beeping noses.
Finally we came to a halt near a shady tavern lit with dim lights. As we got out, The Boss patted his tummy and stated victoriously – “lets eat!”. Great, we were famished indeed!
It turned out that this was their favorite place to come and feast after long trips from Georgia. We were treated like important guests as the tables were getting filled with heavenly meat packed food. There was shashlik, plates full of local cheese and greens, ham and what else. They insisted we try everything.
A good meal with a special company also calls for a good drink. As drinking with strangers is a big NO-NO and red flag, declining the actual invitation could be even worse in Armenia. So we did – help them to empty few shot glasses, but drank them very slowly munching greens as sakuska to chase it down. In the meantime, our fellow comrades didn’t let themselves be disturbed by our slyness and enjoyed the clear strong tasting liquid poured from a Martini Bianco bottle – which it clearly wasn’t.
Just as we had filled our stomachs to the max, Andre made a comment about the Turkish kebab which was relatively light in Istanbul compared to the ones available in central Europe. A comment that wasn’t left unnoticed. Armenian pride took over and The Boss and he gave orders for Durak. The helper quickly skipped outside and soon came back with more meat- the real Armenian kebabs.
Oh boy – yes they were absolutely finger-licking delicious. But even with our best intentions we were too stuffed to enjoy them fully, although the plate was left empty.
4th of November
1.30 AM, Feast is over
Eventually it was time to get moving. By that time The Boss and Wingman had got quite boozy and as one of them had hard time standing up, the other was having trouble of staying awake. For our concern about drinking and driving, they explained that this was perfectly normal and everyone was on the safe side. Luckily our driver Karan had a hangover from previous night, so he had skipped the drinking part of the feast, which gave us a bit security on the road ahead. Andre politely declined the offer to ride with David, who was about to drive on much curvier road than the others because of his condition.
3 AM, Yerevan
As we took an alternative road, we ended up driving through rocky Dilijan National park which took us quite some time – we did many coffee, cigarette, snack shopping and pee breaks. Still, finally the bright lights of Yerevan were starting to show in the night sky. A good evening cannot end without one last coffee break though, so we ended up sitting at the place of our hosts called “The Office”, and trying to figure out what just happened during this long ride. And the puzzle seemed to be getting in place:
Our hosts were local car dealers and this was their office. As Armenia’s import of vehicles is being taxed heavily, the dealers fetch them cheaper from Georgia and bring them over as spare parts. Apparently the car we were driving in, looked too good for the customs which meant the obligatory beauty fixes that had to be done on the spot, to make it a bit shabbier. Durak, namely, being the driver for all the crew, drove them down to Batumi and came back alone. Others grabbed 3 used cars and took on a 646 km drive back to Yerevan. After the business trip the cars will be disassembled and spare parts will be sold for the dealerships, or changed there on the spot for cars waiting for the fix. Over 9 years of successful car runs and dealings they have grown their business quite big which leaves them now home more often, compared to the old days when all they did was drive back and forth.
4.30 AM, Envoy Hostel
Despite their noble offer of couch surfing in their Office, our plans to stay longer in Yerevan forced us to get into a hostel at once. We were really grateful of everything they did for us – and lucky that we got to our destination alive.
We quickly brushed our teeth, sneaked into our hostel room, and fell to deep sleep.
Sometimes you get that gut feeling, the urge which, in weird situations, leads you to biased decisions. Our critical thinking was put on test during the 12-hour ride, but the gut feeling did not let us down. Actually we felt very safe with them. When approaching Yerevan, they told us “this is our turf now, if you ever get in trouble, contact us”.
A bit more trust for the people around ourselves is something we all might need.