The Lonely Road to Yerevan


YEREVAN, ARMENIA — The ride south from Tbilisi was uneventful, mostly because it was a Sunday and traffic was was noticeably less bowel-looseningly terrifying than when I rode in. Halfway to the Armenian border, I noticed my oil tank was nearly empty, which had been a problem in Georgia: there are literally no scooters on the roads here, and what two-stroke oil I did find in Tbilisi was for lawnmowers. (That probably would’ve been fine, but I didn’t want to take any chances.) I pulled off in a town called Marneuli and started looking for the bazaar. Maybe they’d have some there.

Miraculously, at the first automotive shop I visited, I was able to successfuly explain via hand gestures the internal workings of a two-stroke engine, and a lightbulb blinked on over the proprietor’s head. He got out a ladder, shuffled off to some shelves deep in the back, and gingerly extracted from the darkness a 1-litre bottle of synthetic two-stroke motor oil. He blew the dust off it and handed it to me. Overjoyed, I went straight to the Hamburglar and lovingly poured it in the tank. “Look at you,” I said. “You’re thirsty.” I then realized I was talking to an inanimate object, and resolved to not do that anymore.

Georgian customs was easy, as usual, although getting into Armenia required me to head over to the exchange office and get 12 bucks’ worth of Armenian drams to pay for my 21-day tourist visa. As I stood at the counter, I heard a voice behind me. It said, “Szia, Sean.”

I turned around, and lo, it was a pair of Hungarians from the Caucasian Challenge. The rally was officially over, but those participants who hadn’t sold their vehicles in Yerevan were now trying to drive them back to Budapest via Georgia and then Turkey. Unfortunately, something was wrong with the paperwork on one of the jeeps, and they’d been stuck at the border for two days trying to find a loophole in the as-yet impenetrable Armenian bureacuracy.

Sorry to hear about your troubles, boys

The customs guy was waiting for me to pay for my visa, so I wished the Hungarians a jó utat and made a hasty exit. I cleared customs and rolled fifty feet into the world’s oldest Christian country. I then popped in to the MTS kiosk — MTS being a Russian mobile network — and got myself an Armenian SIM card. A quick bite to eat, and I was good to go. In these short dealings with the locals I could sense a definite change in demeanour from the Georgians, who are a pretty animated bunch: people here were by default po-faced and businesslike, and it took some effort to get them to open up.

I bombed down the Debed Canyon running south and west towards Vanadzor. The road was perfect for my Vespa: narrow, gently curving, and reasonably well-maintained. I also had it all to myself. Armenia, like Ireland, is famous for a diaspora that dwarfs the mother country’s population, and evidence of depopulation was visible all along this road, including the near-total lack of traffic. Every ten minutes or so I’d come across an old Lada puttering along, but aside from that, it was just me and the road and one ghost town after another. If there is an ineffable sadness hanging in the Armenian air — after all, it would be severe understatement to say they had a bad 20th century, from beginning to end — these empty villages nestled in impossibly picturesque terrain surely contribute to it.

At the start of the Debed Canyon

After passing the industrial town of Vanadzor, which did show some signs of life, my last chore of the day was getting through the gently sloping mountain range between me and Yerevan. The road began curving broadly left and right, climbing for half an hour until my GPS read 2200 metres above sea level. The trees had vanished, and scrub-covered, conical mountians rippled off to my left and right like some vast geological soufflé. I’d seen this before, somewhere, and it took some time to register: this is what landscapes looked like in those badly illustrated books we had in Sunday School. Sure enough, I was in Old Testament country now.

The last uphill portion before Yerevan

The road descended from the high plain, and as I sped south the massive silhouette of Mount Ararat, just aross the border in Turkey, slowly emerged on the horizon. Dusk fell and I found myself in late rush-hour traffic in Yerevan, population 1.3 million. The city surprised in how its monumental Stalinist architecture — yet more hulking stone blocks, like I’d seen here and there in Tbilisi — lined all the main avenues stretching to the outskirts. I eventually found myself in Republic Square, with its massive dancing fountain on one end, pink stone facades curving around all sides, and enervating traffic rotating counterclockwise around it five lanes thick (give or take a few lanes.) As I struggled to extricate myself from the mess, I saw a white Lada Niva bristling with spinning chrome rims actually drifting its way around the roundabout. The skidding, pimped-out commie jeep somehow stayed glued a foot behind the rear bumper of the car ahead of it. Sadly, I hadn’t managed to leave the kamikaze driving behind in Tbilisi.

The white Lada Niva: a menace to the Armenian roads

Christian was in town, now alone on his TransAlp, as were several thousand shouting, singing, booze-addled Irishmen. Ireland was playing Armenia in an utterly meaningless soccer game that weekend, a sort of clash of the great diaspora-producing nations. Finding a free hotel room was tricky, and I had to settle for an overpriced boutique operation just down the road from Republic Square.

Once I’d settled in, I was off to 26 Irish Bar to meet Christian. I was expecting one of those standard cookie-cutter faux-Irish pubs you find all around the world, which actually would have been welcome at that point, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was a standard hipster dive bar with decent tunes and a congenial mixed crowd of locals and foreigners. Christian had made it in to Yerevan the day before, and had a good handle on the city by then. At one point I got to talking to an American dude who, it turned out, had been part of the Caucasian Challenge and was kicking back in Yerevan for a few days before heading back to Chicago.

Christian and I then made a quick tour of Yerevan’s nightspots. As the wee hours approached, we found that closing time was early in this town, and our only convenient option for a nightcap was the city’s lone and hilariously flamboyant gay bar. Props to Armenia’s LGBT community for having the cojones to set up shop so centrally and obviously; by comparison, most eastern European capitals are stuck in an Eisenhower-era mindset and don’t have anything like that. Christian and I congratulated each other on our cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness at venturing inside the place, then quickly finished our beers and got out of there.

I’d planned to spend about a week in Yerevan, tying up loose ends and relax before entering Iran. Christian, meanwhile, had to skeedaddle home to Switzerland where Miriam was recovering from her broken leg. I wished him good luck on the ride, and started looking for some cheap digs.


35 Responses to “The Lonely Road to Yerevan”

  • John Mac Says:

    Ehmmm, Sean, I would not call a European Championship Qualifying 2012 fixture an utterly meaningless match! Meaningless to you maybe, but hopefully you didn’t express that to the Irish folk who made the trip.

    But I am impressed with your use of the word: diaspora 🙂

  • kareem Says:

    i am also impressed you used the word ‘diaspora’. twice.

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