Living in Georgia will definitely change your ideas about vacation. Words like comfort, adventure, and safety begin to melt like a Dali painting or lose their meaning completely. Things you may have never considered doing become not only normal but altogether every day. This is about the time that hitchhiking through Nagorno-Karabakh with nothing more than a sleeping bag and a few tetri looks like a great way to spend the winter holidays.
Just after Christmas I embarked from my CouchSurfer’s apartment in Yerevan for the experiment of a lifetime. A year in Russia and a year in Georgia under my belt; what better case study is there of influence and culture than a few weeks interacting with as many Armenians as possible?
After what I now recognize as a typical visit to the embassy – not being able to find it or even a pen once I entered – I set out for the outskirts of the city. I stopped at Erebuni ruins for the afternoon. Like all ruins I’ve visited in this part of the world it’s truly more like exploring. You can walk freely through the rooms of the ancient fortress complex, make etchings of the cuneiform text still inscribed clearly on the stone walls, and look down upon the city below which has grown up and up as a sign of the progress of humanity and has all but forgotten this hilltop’s former greatness. Don’t leave your backpack at the bottom of the stairs though. Unless you like hanging out with police.
At the city limits I started walking and quickly got into a huge baby blue truck with a guy named Ararat who agreed to take me to Ararat. Hmm. A word to the wise here. If you’re a woman, inexperienced, and/or don’t speak the local language I don’t advise this kind of travel. Why? Something I knew but didn’t cognitively recognize until this trip was that of course the best chance you have at getting a ride is with “truckers” – people who are working out on the road all the time, who are going your way anyway, who are so bored to death driving alone all the time are more than happy to pick you up. What I mean by all this is one or two men.
With that said, the first ride set the bar high, a precedent which was never abandoned. After the first line of questions – sizing me up – had been evaluated we moved to more immediate matters, “have you eaten yet?” He invited me for dinner. Throughout the trip I found people saying how overworked they were and how pleasant it was to “have a good excuse to take a break”. Continuing on from dinner he insisted on paying for a cab to the church through Pokr Vedi where Khor Virap is located. By this time the sun was setting and when I arrived at the monastery there was but one car full of young men who told me it was already closed for the day.
The first of many moments of decisiveness; ask the guys to take me back to the village or hang around and figure it out. The sunset was so beautiful glowing through the last moments of dusk from behind those two sharp peaks shadowing the monastery in my foreground. I hiked around for a bit to get a lay of the land and suddenly it was dark. Ok, walk at least an hour back to the village and start knocking on doors? Given the outrageous beauty I’d just seen it stood to reason the morning would be just as magnificent. It would also allow me to get an early start. The trick with hitchhiking is that you get to see things no one else would normally see; the downside being that you are taken along their daily work route so you’re bound for endless “delays”.
I decided to stick it out the night with my sleeping bag to see the sunrise on the church and Mount Ararat in the morning. There were several large rocks up a hillside so I set to making some shelter under the crevice of a huge rock; clearing the small sharp rocks and packing in a thick layer of dead brush on which I laid my sleeping bag. With no light left, relying on my ever-so-trusty TLG-phone flashlight, I crawled into my sleeping bag warmed by the fear of my present company: several packs of howling wolves. Hadn’t considered that. My meditations were only amplified by the deafening howls a mere hundred meters away; staring at Orion has become something of a fond pastime since I arrived in Georgia. As Candide put it, this is the best of all possible worlds. “This is just where I want to be… I don’t think they’re THAT hungry… but if they are, well, I guess that’s how it’s going to be… maybe Orion’ll help me, or at least tell whoever finds my remains I put up a good fight…”
I woke up thinking that must be what cryogenic freezing is like. My sleeping bag was crusted with a thin layer of ice. After a less than restful 12 hours I woke up feeling absolutely terrible. It was like multi-system failure and all I wanted was a giant vat of Borjomi to drink myself out of. I watched the sunrise and set my things out in the sun to defrost and dry. Feeling a strange mixture of brave, stupid, triumphant, plague-ridden, foggy, and dumb-struck, I felt a little like running up to the church screaming “ASYLUM!” I pictured myself lying on a cot in the monk’s quarters drinking different concoctions while a shaman-like monk rid me of demons. Instead I hiked around and calmly went up to the monastery to see the church. Embarking around noon, walking down the side of the highway singing Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again I could only have guessed that was truly just the beginning…