DAY FOUR: Dilijan – Ijevan – Berd (plan aborted)
This was a magic day. I started out that morning by finding a beautiful feather at my feet. My mom always says that finding a feather is a sign that your angels are watching over you. She is right.
I walked along the main road in Dilijan to a suitable hitching spot and started my wait, forefinger pointing up the road. My ride ended up being with an older man wearing a furry hat in his sparkling white Land Rover. When he found out I was trying to get to Pzar Lake he turned around, drive to the petrol station to fill up his tank and then drove me out of town and up to the lake. Looking at an online map I had thought I could get there on my own, but when we actually got to the road I saw that I would have had to walk – there was no one driving up, or down, that day.
The road itself was more beautiful than the actual lake. We wound our way up the hillside through a quiet forest, the early morning sun shining through the red and yellow leaves. At one point snow lay glittering on the ground. And at the top of the road, I marvelled at the reflection of snow-covered mountain peaks in the still lake.
The magic of the day continued with my second ride. A minivan driver picked me up and insisted on having a conversation, despite our obvious language barrier. By and by I managed to explain that I was aiming to hitch to Berd via the mountain road. In turn, he said not many cars go that way. When we arrived in Ijevan he took me into a bank where some people spoke English. I was able to explain where I wanted to go and why: to see the deep mountains.
Again I was told that very few cars drive that way, but the driver told me he would take me up the hill to his village, at the turn for the road to Berd. I agreed, thinking I could always turn around and hitch down again if I didn’t manage to find a ride. And so we set off, driving up a steep road out of the city and through the village of Gandzakar. As good as his word, he left me on a rutted, muddy road at the edge of the village. And there I stood. For 20 minutes. For 30 minutes. For 45 minutes. No one was going up the mountain.
By this stage I had started chatting to a local woman with only one half tooth in the front of her mouth. With a combination of my five Armenian words and sign language I told her about wanting to hitch a ride through the mountains to Berd. She waved her hands and shook her head. It wasn’t looking good. Since it was going on 3pm I decided to give it an hour and then head down to Ijevan for the night.
An hour arrived. I called it, took one last hopeful look up the road and picked up my backpack. The woman walked with me and beckoned me into her house – turns out I had been standing in front of her gate all that time. Coffee with a local in a village? Why not.
By accepting her invitation for coffee – small, strong and dark and brewed on the wood stove in one of her home’s two rooms – I accepted an invitation to stay longer, to sit and talk, to stay for dinner and eventually to stay for the night. This was a night that will be filed with my most significant travel stories.
Mirana and Gulnara in their village home.
Gulnara and her daughter Mirina took me under their wings, patiently repeating phrases and words and gestures. We had our coffee while Mirina put on her make-up – pallets of eye shadow, nail polish and lip gloss spilling out of her handbag – and then headed down to Ijevan. I wasn’t sure why but I understood that I could leave my backpack in their wardrobe. Mirina was dolled up in a pink sweater and high-heeled boots and Gulnara had a black leather overcoat on over her slacks. She carried some apples in a plastic shopping bag.
We got a ride down with one of their friends who pulled off the road halfway down to turn around and speak to me in the backseat. Of course, I couldn’t understand him. So he pulled out a piece of paper and began drawing a map of the area. This I could do, and drew the route I had hoped to complete that day. Now he understood how I came to be Gulnara’s unusual guest.
Down in town we stopped past the market where a flower seller gave me beautiful purple flower. I thought we were there to buy food for dinner but it tuned out that the apples and bread were for the person Gulnara visited in the hospital. Despite hanging out in the waiting room for a long while, I never understood who that person was.
Back in the village the women stoked up the fire and we had coffee while Gulnara peeled potatoes. A neighbour came to visit, drink coffee, chat and eat sunflower seeds. I traded my boots for a pair of Gulnara’s slippers which seemed suitable footwear for our various strolls along the muddy tracks through the village to the shops, once to pay a bill and the other to buy toffees and wafers to accompany the coffee, and sausage and chicken pieces for dinner.
The rest of the night bias given over to visiting and cooking and eating and drinking. Gulnara’s husband and son came home. We drank more coffee. We spoke – mostly I nodded ‘ha’, ‘okay, okay’ and laughed and smiled despite not understanding most of what was going on. Dinner was boiled potatoes, sausage and fried chicken, pickled peppers, a tomato chilli sauce, warmed bread and a lurid yellow juice from the shop down the road. There was arak too, of course, and each sip was accompanied by a lengthy toast. Other young men joined the dinner, one of them was Mirina’s boyfriend and all of them had coal-black hands. I continued nodding and smiling and not understanding the conversation.
Finally bedtime rolled around. I brushed my teeth with water from a container in the basic kitchen – they have no running water – and used the toilet which is a raised platform with a hole over the open ground. Mirina prepared a bed for me in her room and tucked me, asking again and again if I was okay. Of course I was, I was in a warm bed surrounded by kind people who had welcomed me into their home and overwhelmed me with their generosity. I went to sleep listening to the deep silence of the cold night, feeling the blessings of open-hearted people.
Gulnara, her husband (I never actually leant his name) and Mirina outside their home.
DAY FIVE: Gandakar – Lake Sevan – Yerevan
Berd would confine to be just a name on the map for me. I decided to chuck in my plan to travel over the mountains, opting for the road back to Ijevan and on to Lake Sevan and Armenia’s capital Yerevan. I had a morning coffee with my Armenian mamma and said my goodbyes. I gave Gulnara the last of my money, which wasn’t much but something I hoped would convey my deep gratitude. Back in Ijevan I stopped in at the bank to say thanks to the guys who had translated for me. I ended up staying for tea and chats with the girls, who took a shining to me. It was a big contrast being in the polished bank building with the girls dressed up in make-up and high heels after my time in the smoky village.
My friends in the bank.
From Ijevan I passed back through Dilijan and on to Lake Sevan via a winding mountain pass and through a tunnel that spat us out amid steep mountain slopes dotted with snow. In Sevan two young army officers picked me up and took me for tea before leaving me at the peninsula. I ate my lunch of manadrins, jam and lavash from the hilltop monastery with a view over the lake towards the snow-covered peaks.
My drivers to Lake Sevan.
Sevan to Yerevan took some time, but I eventually made it into the city and even got a free taxi ride all the way to the hostel. Five days of hitching and talking and telling the same stories and getting stuck and making a plan and meeting people and being overwhelmed by kindness. Armenia will forever be a place of epic travel stories for me.