After the fourth consecutive vodka shot at 1pm on a Tuesday I decided I should probably try to eat as much as humanly possible. It was clear that this was a case of ‘get the foreigner drunk’. It was working. I needed to soak up the alcohol. Another successful hitchhiking adventure around Armenia was unfolding.
I’d woken up that morning with a sense of triumph. The sun was shining, it was forecast to be 25 degrees, and I was not working. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d left Yerevan so decided that things were perfectly primed for another adventure of meeting new people and having a load of fun, whilst barely spending a penny. Hitchhiking is addictive.
I called Victoria. She came over, and we grabbed the bus to our regular hitchhiking spot on the northern stretches of the Yerevan sprawl. We grinned, and stuck out a thumb. By now, the regular traffic along this road must recognise us – we’ve hitched from this spot many many times over the past few months with unanimous success on each occasion. Who would be the most interesting person we meet today?
After less than a minute we had our ride. A jeep pulled over and a smiley local guy in his fifties introduced himself as Araz. He was going to Lake Sevan and could take us all the way there. Great.
We set off down the highway. As it turned out, Araz was a commercial pilot, and had been for thirty years. Victoria and I asked him about his job. He answered in a mixture of Armenian (translated through Victoria) and his pretty good English. He was a nice guy.
As we came over a crest in the road to the spot where you can first see the waters of Lake Sevan, glistening in the October sun, Araz asked if we wanted to take a more scenic route to where we were going. Of course, was the reply. We weren’t going anywhere in particular, just out on a day adventure from home.
We left the highway and skirted through Sevan City. Like many smaller settlements in Armenia, the roads were potholed and unpaved. “This is 2012, it’s crazy,” commented Araz at the state of things. I agreed. We left Sevan and climbed high up the mountain, past the local hydroelectric plant, and stopped opposite a once grand and now rather rundown hotel. We had a spectacular view of the lake from above, and spent a few minutes taking in the scenery.
I scanned the horizon. The endless mountains of the Caucasus trailed off into the distance. The trees, once green, now shone in wonderful reds, oranges, golden yellows of autumn. What a beautiful season. Araz took us back to the highway. He was heading to an appointment, so with a smile and a handshake he dropped us off on the shoulder and off he went.
Another minute passed on the highway shoulder. A young guy in a typically Armenian Lada – all tinted windows and music blaring – pulled over. We got in and asked where he was going. To a church to meet some friends for lunch, was his response. Did we want to come with him? Sure, why not. We had a bag full of food anyway, so why not share it with the group.
We arrived to bemused looks from his group of friends. When at a Church, the obvious thing is to use a gravestone as a dinner table, of course. Slightly bizarre, I thought, as we were welcomed into the party. We ate fresh bread, cheese, meat and salsa together. It was delicious. Then the vodka was produced. Things started to get a little hazey shortly after that, but it became clear that one of the guys had taken quite a liking to Victoria. I think her travel companion being off his face on cheap Ukrainian vodka meant that it was ok for him to get ever closer to his prey. We chose this moment to leave, and asked for a ride back to the highway. I’d imagine that’s probably the last time I eat lunch and drink vodka on some guy’s grave, but with hitching you really never know.
A few minutes later we were approaching the entrance to the tunnel leading to the valley before the town of Dilijan. Victoria and I had decided that we should head to the mountain town to get coffee. Hopefully that would sober us up a bit.
We approached the tunnel. Then through my drunken haze I spotted something familiar looking: a guy on a loaded-up touring bike. We pulled over and jumped out to greet a fellow cyclist. Harisan had cycled to Armenia from his native Japan, and was on his way to the arctic circle. We talked for a few minutes and then the vodka guys, realizing that their attraction was unrequited, sped off into the distance. We talked to Harisan, a pleasant and interesting guy on the side of the road a while longer.
Victoria had been sticking out her thumb for most of the conversation, and suddenly, mid-sentence, a huge Slovenian registered truck came to a halt beside us. We introduced ourselves to Mario, said goodbye to Harisan, and jumped in. I knew we’d bump into him later.
I love this part of the Armenian highway. The tunnel to Dilijan was built around ten years ago through a mountain – before that you had to drive the treaturous road over the thing – and is less than a mile long. The amazing part? On the southern, Lake Sevan, side of the crossing, the mountains are bare, with very few trees. The grass is yellowed from the months of dry weather. But exiting the northern side of the tunnel you feel like you’re in another country. It could be the alps of Austria, Italy, or France. The mountains are tightly wound together, and covered in thick forest. The wide road that winds it’s way down the valley along switchback after switchback is wide enough for about six cars, is freshly paved, and has no lined painted yet. The setting and the road remind me very much of Germany’s legendary Nurburgring Nordschleife race circuit – the automotive Mecca. I’d love to drive a performance car down this road at Mach Three with my hair on fire, but sitting on the floor of a Slovenian truck with Victoria and Mario would suffice, for now.
Mario was another pleasant chap, who drove this route every couple of weeks. He told us of his time as a trucker. He knew the former Soviet Union like the back of hid hand, how he disliked Kazakhstan, and how much he enjoyed Dilijan’s beauty. We rode along for a few minutes, before jumping out at Dilijan’s central crossroads. We were sobered up a bit, and now it was time for that coffee.
400 Armenian Drams got us two cups of nasty instant coffee badness. It did the job. Now we decided we would wait. The road down from the tunnel was one long hill, and I knew in a few minutes that our Japanese friend, Harisan, would arrive in town. I sat in the sun, as Victoria chased “Dilidawg” around the square, armed with pieces of lavash. Someone had clearly kicked Dilidawg in the face at some point in his life, as he was terrified of people, and his jaw was completely messed up. Eventually, Victoria’s animal loving nature won through, as Dilidawg ate the food on offer, before running off.
A few minutes later we were met with the sight of Harisan rounding the final corner into town. He waved and pulled over. We all sat in the sun together and swapped travel stories.
Harisan was considering moving to Vancouver at some point on a working holiday visa, and I recommended it to him highly – seeing as that was how I initially moved there myself. Harisan had already visited Vancouver briefly in the past – as part of a hitchhiking adventure he did from Fairbanks, Alaska, all the way down through British Columbia, to Seattle. Sounds like a fun trip – maybe I’ll do the reverse from Vancouver to Fairbanks sometime.
We relaxed in the sun a while longer. By now, the afternoon was moving along, and we needed to start heading back to Yerevan. Harisan was camping, so he could stay anywhere, but we wanted to be back in time to chill for a while in the evening. We exchanged details and said our goodbyes. Hopefully we’ll see Harisan again sometime.
Victoria and I set off back to Yerevan. We started walking back up the hill to a good hitching spot. Soon enough, a taxi driver, who had been badgering us for an expensive ride to Yerevan back in Dilijan, pulled over. He gave us a free ride to the edge of town. We thanked him for his kindness and started to hitch again. Soon we had another ride. A lady, who had seen us hitching down into Dilijan earlier that afternoon, got her driver to stop and pick us up. She was intrigued by who we were and what we were up to. Apparently, she was a very well-known lady in Dilijan – I didn’t have a clue – and we were whisked to the top of the hill, overlooking the spectacular valley and mountain range below us.
At this point, Victoria produced a huge bottle of beer from her bag. It turned out that the drunken louts we’d lunched with earlier had given her the beer – a locally produced brand from Sevan. We sat on the wall by the highway and triumphantly downed the beverage in the sunshine.
A few minutes passed. We put the beer away and stuck out a thumb. A construction truck pulled over and we were given a rather bumpy ride to Sevan City, before a luxury Mercedes, driven by a guy who told me he knew a great spot to hitch a truck in Yerevan to Iran, whisked us all the way back. I missed half of the journey as I fell asleep, but we arrived safe and sound on Komitas Street, five minutes from home.
One day, five cars, two trucks, one huge beer, two bottles of vodka, two coffees, one Japanese cyclist, one gravestone lunch, and a whole load of cut-priced fun. This is why hitchhiking is awesome.