Yerevan to Istanbul, 3-4th August, 2013
Where is she from?” the woman asks Hrach in Armenian.
“She’s from England”, he tells her.
Her eyes grow wide. “England, ooh!” I feel awkward. I look at my feet and let Hrach do the talking.
We pay for my ticket, then sit around in the waiting room, feeling slightly teary.
The bus arrives. We look at one another. He hugs me again.
I get on the bus and sit by the window, watching him smoke outside.
A young guy with long scraggly blonde hair and a worn backpack climbs on the bus just as the engine is starting. Now we are two giraffes on the bus.
Hrach comes on the bus for another hug and barely gets off again before we leave. I wave to him as he gets smaller. Later, he will tell me that a woman threw two small bottles of water after the bus, an Armenian tradition to bring us home safely.
It takes more than two forevers to reach Gyumri, the second biggest city in Armenia, approximately 130 kilometres from Yerevan. Where we’re going is Istanbul, 1,900 kilometres, through all of Georgia and across the vast expanse of Anatolia. I wonder if the journey will be achieved in my lifetime, the rate we’re going.
The bus stops at Gyumri. People get off; people get on. I queue for a toilet with most of the women from the bus, who mostly piss on the floor instead because the stinking pile is just too much for them.
Some more hours later we arrive at the Georgian border. The other giraffe climbs off the bus with me and we wait together in the queue, passports ready. He sneezes and then blows his nose with a handkerchief – an act which sends the two Georgian border guards into such sheets of laughter that they’re barely able to operate the stamp. Tears are still streaming down their faces as we walk out of the glass building, shrugging at one another.
We stop again at Kutaisi. The other giraffe and I share katchapuri – my favourite Georgian pastry with lashings of cheese. I’m planning to be vegan again once I’m back in Europe and this will be my final cheesy treat.
We collect a couple of Georgian men who join us giraffes and one of the women who works in the tourist agency on the back seat. We arrange ourselves for maximum sprawling potential, me and one of the men dozing on the floor, the others with their feet up on the seats.
A commotion erupts shortly before we arrive at the Turkish border. Suddenly, there are packets of cigarettes, vodka and other taxable items being split, swapped and stashed under seats. Women suddenly want to be friends with us and implore us to take various items across the border for them.
Inside the border checkpoint, we cram together at the waist-high black line that holds us back from the baggage-checking machines. There is much pushing and shoving. I feel my lungs and other vital organs squashing together. Just as I feel I’m about to pass out, the line is released by a border guard and the crowd surges forward as one. Old women elbow one another in the face in their dash to get to the x-ray machines. Twenty or forty bags are crammed onto the conveyor at once, clogging the machine, which begins beeping in earnest. I see several people grab their bags and dash through the metal detectors, which blip in unison with the baggage machines. They put their bags on the pile on the other side, with the bags that already went through, then stand by, looking innocent.
“ARKADASHLARIM! LUTFEN!! LUTFEN!!!” Shouts one of the guards, looking distressed – Friends! Please!! Please!!!
“This is yours?” Another guard asks me. “Take it, please.” My bag didn’t have to go through the conveyor. I feel guilty and wish I’d stashed more cigarettes for the others, who are now being herded – though not very successfully – back behind the line.
Everyone is grinning when we get back on the bus.
We are in Turkey. Unfortunately, we didn’t keep track of who gave us cigarettes or where they went, but one woman seems not to have everything she gave us. I remember that she was the first one who asked us, and she gave us 20 packs each, but now they aren’t all there. We hunt in compartments and pockets, but to no avail. We are studiously ignored by all other passengers.
We trundle on into Turkey.
An aeon passes.
I chat in English with the other giraffe – who I discover paid more than me for his ticket – and in pidgin Turkish with the tour agency woman and one of the Georgians. Apparently, they do this trip often. The Georgian man has a house in Istanbul, as well as one in Georgia. He buys cars from Germany, then drives them to Turkey, Georgia and Armenia to sell. In fact, it seems everyone on the bus is doing something similar – some sell socks or cigarettes or accessories.
We’re close to Istanbul when we make our last rest stop, somewhere close to Sakarya. The quality and prices of the goods on offer has risen dramatically the further west we’ve travelled. Now we’re on the tourist route, I can’t afford snacks, but there is something very interesting about this particular rest stop.
I find an old gravestone propped against a wall, close to a trinket booth not far from the restaurant.
It’s an old Armenian gravestone. A little boy. A reminder of a past in which these lands were full of Armenians, as well as Turks, Kurds, Alevi, Zaza and many other tribes and peoples.
We arrive in Istanbul in the evening, the day after the morning I said goodbye to Hrach. It was a 36 hour journey, still less than the 48 hours advertised. Not bad for $60.
I make my way to Banu’s house, feeling slightly culture-shocked.
Late July, 2013
Once named Kumayri, then Gyumri, Alexandropol, Leninakan and now Gyumri once again, this is a city that changes identity more than Hrach changes socks.
Many locals still refer to the city by its former name, Leninakan – despite the most recent name change in 1990. That’s how Hrach refers to it while asking around at the bus station in Yerevan. There’s only one daily train each way between Gyumri and the capital, taking almost five hours to rattle along 122km between the two cities. We already missed the train and are determined not to take a taxi.
We climb in and out of several marshrutkas (minibuses), before eventually getting into the suspiciously shiny and unmarked taxi that will drive us to Gyumri, Armenia’s second biggest city. Fortunately, it’s a shared taxi, meaning we share the cost of the cab with two other men we collect from the roadside along our way.
Simon discovers us in Ponchik Monchik two hours later, scoffing ponchiks and monchiks: fat bubbles of sugary dough, much like a doughnut. A ponchik is filled with Vanilla goo, a monchik with faux chocolate goo.
Some pictures I stole from Kris Mole:
When people ask Simon why he moved from Yerevan to Gyumri, he usually shrugs and says something enigmatic, like “I just wanted to see what it was like”, or “there are some really nice walks”.
While showing us around, Simon gives a run-down of everything he’s learned about the city so far: alcoholism is very high, unemployment is very high, domestic abuse is very high – estimated at 60% in Armenia generally, more in cities like Gyumri, with particularly turbulent histories.
The most important thing to know about Gyumri is the earthquake.
As an old town, Gyumri has a rich history and a unique style of architecture. Unfortunately, the city lost many of its historical and cultural buildings after the disastrous earthquake in December 1988.
Everybody in Gyumri has a relative who died in the earthquake. It’s said that the city has since received enough aid to rebuild a city the same size from scratch three times over, but it has all been embezzled. Today, twenty-five years later, many of the historic buildings remain as rubble and people are still living in ‘temporary’ emergency accommodation. The city is being rebuilt, but painfully slowly.
Gyumri was known historically as the “city of trades and arts”, famous for its schools, theatres, poets and musicians. During the pre-Soviet era, it was considered the third largest trade and cultural centre in Transcaucasia, after Tbilisi and Baku. It managed to somewhat regain this title recently, being officially declared Commonwealth of Independent States Cultural Capital of 2013.
Gyumri bears a close resemblance to Kars, her twin city in the snowy North-East corner of Turkey, what would be a short hop over the closed border. I have a soft spot for Kars and find myself pondering how they were once part of the same culture/land/empire. What was it like living in these places before successive wars and invasions ripped them apart?
As we climb the hill to where Mother Armenia gazes down upon the rubble, Simon tells us that more than half of the women working in his institution regularly come in with black eyes or worse. They are apparently quite open about the troubles at home. He seems at quite a loss to know how to react – the problem is so widespread, the help for these women is so scant and the social pressure to stay in a marriage is huge.
We gaze at the amphitheatre.
On the way back down the hill, Hrach finds a sim card on the ground. I scoff at him when he picks it up and puts it into his phone, but soon he’s getting messages from a guy who says he lost it and can we go to meet him in town?
Two guys come to meet us in the eccentrically decorated ‘Oasis Restaurant’, thank us for the sim card and disappear. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, as we were hoping for some kind of adventure, or at least a social interaction with these native Gyumretsis.
We order beers and soak up the vibe, which admittedly is somewhat lacking.
Later, we will spend a quiet evening playing music and drinking beer at Simon’s institution, where he also lives in the adjacent hostel building.
A week later I will leave Armenia, soon to be followed by Hrach. Simon, once our neighbour in Yerevan, will also leave the country in the next few weeks.
This is our final Armenian adventure.
Kris Mole’s rather more adventurous tales about Gyumri:
If you thought this blog was a tad quiet lately, one of the reasons is that I’m now writing and blogging for Vagabundo, a recently relaunched adventure travel magazine. Vagabundo is written for travellers, by travellers. It’s completely independent, and that’s why you might also notice that I’ve broken my no banners rule in an effort to support it.
It was a huge honour (and also a little nerve-wracking), to write my contribution – a tribute to Taylor Booth, the well known and loved world hitch-hiker who lost his life in a car crash early last year, while hitch-hiking in Chad. I’m delighted that the editors dedicated this entire issue to him.
When I think of real adventure travel, Taylor comes immediately to my mind.
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